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Decade-long devotion to female scientists in Korea

Decade-long devotion to female scientists in Korea

L’Oreal Korea CEO Richard Cymberg and Lee Kyung-lim, dean of pharmacy college at Ewha Womans University, talk about women in science and joint efforts to support them over the past decade

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Published : 2013-12-13 19:57
Updated : 2013-12-16 10:10

L’Oreal Korea CEO Richard Cymberg (left) and Lee Kyung-lim, dean of the College of Pharmacy at Ewha Womans University, pose at the company’s headquarters in Samseong-dong, southern Seoul. 
(Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)

One Friday night a few years ago, Richard Cymberg, then zone director of travel retail luxury products at L’Oreal Group, received a phone call at his residence in Miami.

It was his boss, Jean-Paul Agon, chairman of the world’s largest beauty company, and he said: “I want to send you to a country where there are the most beautiful women in the world.”

On hearing the intriguing proposal, Cymberg, who had devoted more than 30 years to L’Oreal, didn’t need to think twice. He immediately joined the Korean team in 2010.

“My boss was right,” said the L’Oreal Korea president. “It’s true that Korean women are beautiful, not just in appearance but also in the way they express themselves.”

Cymberg now believes his mission in Korea is not just selling more products to smart, fashionable women here but also helping create a better society for them, so that they can express their talents in a suitable environment.

Since L’Oreal was established in 1909 by a group of French scientists, the company has put considerable resources into research and development activities under the belief that “world needs science and science needs women.”

This corporate philosophy has led to the development of competitive L’Oreal products and support programs for women, especially those involved in science.

Among other things, the L’Oreal-UNESCO Awards for Women in Science have honored and supported about 1,700 talented women from 108 countries over the past 15 years. The award is now dubbed the “Nobel Prize for female scientists.”

L’Oreal Korea has also operated its own Korea L’Oreal-UNESCO Awards for Women in Life Science in cooperation with the Women’s Bioscience Forum and the Korean National Commission for UNESCO since 2002. Thus far, 50 winners have been given scholarships under the initiative and two of them became the laureates for the international award.

“The Korean winners represent the very Korean spirit ― dynamism, ambition and high-level of education,” he said. “I hope we help Korean female scientists feel more confident in their role in society and the science field.”

These days women are getting more degrees and achieving higher grades than men in many industrialized countries, including Korea. But female researchers are still paid less and are more likely to work part-time. And the big money in science is in computers and engineering ― the two fields with the fewest women.

According to the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World, women make up less than 30 percent of scientists and technologists in Europe, the United States, South Africa, India and Korea. Around the world, only some 12 percent of decision-making positions in science at universities and in the private sector are occupied by women.

Despite progress in female education, only a small number of Korean women are attempting to break into the field of science, a stubbornly male bastion.

“Many talented scientists are forced to abandon their career due to marriage, pregnancy and a lack of social support,” said Lee Kyung-lim, dean of the College of Pharmacy at Ewha Womans University, who also leads the Women’s Bioscience Forum. “In this situation, the L’Oreal award itself has become a great motivation for women to continue to seek a career in science.”

After years of partnership, Cymberg and Lee recently decided to take one step further ― awakening scientific curiosity among young students.

In October, they kicked off a new program called “Science Open Lab,” with 200 female high school students who were invited to carry out scientific projects together with 60 female scientists. The Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning also stepped forward to give support.

Thanks to an explosive reaction from female students, they said they plan to expand the number of participating students and scientists to cover more areas across the nation. Cymberg also hinted that the program, which is unique in Korea, is getting keen attention from other global operations of L’Oreal.

These days big businesses, regardless of their national origin, are required to do more in terms of social responsibility activities in Korea. But L’Oreal’s Korean chief denied he was feeling any enhanced pressure in this regard.

“We started a lot of such activities before the pressure started,” he said, pointing out that the company started its first CSR program in its early days here, back in 1993 when its sales were low.

“For us, CSR and sales are totally different things,” he added.

Lee also stressed that if the program were part of the company’s marketing strategy, it could not have been maintained and would not be as successful as it is today.

“There is only one goal for our collaboration ― nurturing and supporting talented female scientists,” she said.

On the business side, Cymberg, of course, aims to further expand his company’s presence in Korea, where L’Oreal is the No. 3 player following the two powerful Korean brands ― AmorePacific and LG Household and Healthcare.

“You cannot be in Korea without ambition,” he said of the competitive business environment in Korea. “We have launched only 16 brands out of our international lineup of 28 brands, which means more room for growth.”

He said that Korea is also playing a very key role in product development, especially for skincare lines, as one of the 17 L’Oreal evaluation centers is located in Korea.

Due to the female-friendly working environment and generous welfare benefits, a job at L’Oreal Korea is considered one of the most sought-after jobs here.

And the Korean chief added that the fair opportunities accorded to every employee is another key attraction.

“We don’t promote people as they are get older. We see if they have strong skills and ambitions,” he said, adding that he was 29 years old when he was promoted to the position of general manger in Brazil.

“What I also hope is that our CSR activities help employees feel prouder about the company acting as a corporate citizen here.”

On Thursday, the state-run Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Corporation named L’Oreal Korea as one of the six multinational companies that engaged in the most impressive CSR activities this year.

By Lee Ji-yoon

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