Bettina Cassegrain is the partner in charge of International Business Development at COGEP in France, the Global Assurance Leader at HLB and a distinguished figure in the accounting world. Recognized as one of the Top 50 Women in Accounting for 2023, Bettina has made significant strides in her career and has been a trailblazer in promoting Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I).
With her extensive experience in a senior position within a global company, Bettina has a unique perspective on the challenges and opportunities presented by DE&I in the corporate world. She spoke with Cecile Bonino, Principal, Global Engagement at IFAC, to share her experiences.
Cecile Bonino (CB): Bettina, congratulations on being recognized as one of the Top 50 Women in Accounting for 2023. Can you share with us the personal journey and professional experiences that have led to this remarkable achievement?
Bettina Cassegrain (BC): When I started my career in accounting in 1999, the profession was even more male dominated than it is now. Rather than feeling threatened and wondering about perceived or actual inequalities, I concentrated on my personal goals (making it to the partner level in 10 years – which I did, by the way) and volunteered when good opportunities presented themselves.
Like many women, I initially believed that my good work would speak for itself, and that people would obviously recognise my talents. I learned the hard way that nothing could be further from the truth and started saying very clearly what I wanted, how I planned to go about achieving it, and why it was in the interest of the organisation to let me have a go.
Much later, I used courses such a ‘Women Transforming Leadership’ at the Said Business School in Oxford and the work with my coaches Helen Warner and Tracy Fink to become an ever better and braver version of myself. They taught me, and are still teaching me, that there is nothing wrong with speaking up and putting yourself out there. It might not come naturally to many of us, but it is something that anyone can learn over time.
CB: You are a multilingual business development and audit specialist. How did your educational background prepare you for this very global role? What are the skills needed?
BC: I am originally from Germany and my background is in English literature and languages. My results in mathematics and science were far from outstanding. I was lucky to start my career in the UK, as in France or Germany, a career in accounting would have been impossible given my degree.
I approached my training contract the way I have always approached everything in life: give your best, no matter what you do, as what you learn will come in handy one day. I learned how to do a stock take working at a supermarket in Germany as a teenager for example. Little did I know that I would be doing many more stock takes one day.
It is true that I have been able to make use of my language skills over the years and that public speaking and writing have also become an integral part of my career. Today, one of the most important skills in my work is being sensitive to cultural differences, and I was able to develop my awareness in this respect during my time in the UK, in France and during my many travels. My time abroad has taught me that observing and listening is much more valuable than speaking. People do things differently because their environment requires a different answer to the same question. There is no such thing as right or wrong, only different.
CB: Managing diversity in a large company like COGEP can be complex and being part of the leadership team in a global network like HLB must present unique challenges. How do you navigate the complexities of DE&I on an international scale within the accounting industry? What are the specific challenges you've encountered, and how do you address them?
BC: One of the main challenges I see is that while many of us agree that a diverse and inclusive work environment leads to better results and more profitable organizations, the frequent polarization of the topic unfortunately undermines progress and over-politicizes the debate. I have just alluded to the importance of accepting different cultural influences and environments. With respect to DE&I, this means that we have to acknowledge that there is no level playing field at a global scale. Getting to the stage where we acknowledge these differences is a massive step in the right direction. Once entire organizations accomplish this, moving forward together to co-create an environment which can see all employees thrive will become more achievable.
With regard to the advancement of women in the profession, I am a big believer in focusing on all employees rather than women in particular. It is only by opening up measures such as time off to care for a sick child to all that we can start changing mindsets. In order to make lasting progress, we need to get away from the idea that certain tasks are necessarily the responsibilities of women.
CB: Could you share some of the significant milestones or achievements in your career that you are particularly proud of?
BC: I went to the UK to study with a DAAD scholarship from the German government. There were only 50 of us and being one of them was probably one of my proudest moments. Joining Hacker Young in London and obtaining my ACA qualification was another one. Not nearly as many young people studied or worked abroad in the mid-1990s but it was what I wanted and to me it was a foregone conclusion that I was going to be successful.
Later, I became the first ever non-French partner at my firm, one of the first female partners, the first female Chair of HLB France, the first female Leader of Audit and Assurance at HLB, one of very few women on the HLB Council and at the Forum of Firms.
CB: In your role as the Global Assurance Leader at HLB, how have you been instrumental in driving diversity and inclusion initiatives within the organization?
BC: HLB has dedicated programmes and measures in place to ensure we are a diverse and inclusive network. While such initiatives can genuinely help people, I believe that as individuals we can do much more. An informal one-on-one approach can be complementary or even stand alone. It all depends on the individual, their experience and what they are looking for. After all, the main goal is not to demonstrate we have a programme in place but to help the individual who is seeking assistance.
One of the main aims of the outreach I conduct worldwide (be it quality reviews, training or speaking engagements) is to lead by example and show women that they can be anything they want to be if they only dare to do so. This means providing ongoing hands-on coaching and mentoring, calling on women to showcase their expertise, creating speaking engagements for women (at the Forum of Firms and HLB conferences for instance), making introductions, and having an open-door policy for all. My involvement can vary from ad hoc conversations to working with women on their skills and competences, recommending trainings and upskilling programmes, and generally providing encouragement.
CB: I know that you have a son and that your family is very important for you. Were you able to reach the work-life balance you aspired to?
BC: I don’t really believe in work-life balance, I call it work-life integration. Depending on the stage we are at in our lives and our careers, things may very well be out of balance. The important detail is that all those concerned are happy and when this is no longer the case, we need to address the situation and find solutions.
In my family, we have taught our son from a very early age that he is part of our team and that his contribution matters. He has rights and responsibilities, and him doing his part is as important as me doing my part. We need to be able to rely on him in the same way that he needs to be able to rely on his parents.
This approach does not mean that my work is more important than my family, it just means that we do things slightly differently. It is about quality over quantity and thinking outside the box. I do not need to be at home or even in France to spend time with him. I have done a university entry call from Guatemala with him on the line at home, have helped with homework from New York City via Teams and we regularly shop together using Facetime.
The result is a very responsible and independent teenager who is one of my biggest supporters and who does not even ask himself the question if women should be equal because he cannot imagine things any other way.
Needless to say, I would not be able to succeed in my career without the support of my husband. As I mentioned, it’s a team effort.
CB: What advice do you have for other professionals, especially women, aspiring to excel in the accounting field and break barriers in leadership roles?
BC: In Germany, we start school at the age of six. I stayed at the same school until the age of twelve. In the first week, all classes select a representative. I was the representative for my class. During the first meeting of all representatives, we were asked a question and I put my hand up and answered. I remember the older kids laughing. After all, what could this little girl who had just started school know. I just ignored them. I had an unwavering belief that I was the right person to represent my class, that the other kids would vote for me, which they did, and that my opinion was as valid as anybody else’s.
Not everyone has the same access or the same opportunities. But that does not mean we cannot get where we want to be, it simply means that every individual has a very different path. What it means though is that as women, we must be ready to put ourselves out there to test the waters even if it seems daunting. It takes time and effort and is easier when one can rely on a circle of like-minded individuals (both male and female) for support. I firmly believe that that any women can be anything they want to be and claim their rightful place as leaders in the accounting profession. Inspiring each other not to wait until things are better but to turn our dreams into plans today and reality tomorrow is our ultimate strength. Every single woman has a role to play, no matter her current role or her ambitions.