Rebecca Toth is CEO of Yxir, the EDF Group subsidiary specialising in artificial intelligence to improve the performance of industrial companies. On the occasion of International Women's Rights Day, she looks back on her career as a woman engineer, entrepreneur and manager.

Rebecca Toth, CEO Yxir

Rebecca, can you tell us a little about your career? 

Rebecca Toth: After studying at Polytechnique and then the Ecole des Mines in Paris, I joined the EDF Group's Nuclear Engineering Division as an engineer. There I built up technical expertise in the field, which enabled me to rapidly develop my skills and gain legitimacy. After ten years working in this department, I took up the position of Chief Data Officer for nuclear engineering, a brand new post created within the Group to take part in the digital transformation programme. It was then that I immersed myself in all aspects of data and artificial intelligence. Our ambition was to think outside the box, to try out new things, to think about new methods to improve performance. All the major groups were creating similar positions at the same time, and we quickly exchanged ideas with our peers to move forward more quickly and challenge each other. I then realised that at EDF, we had found solutions to problems shared by many manufacturers, and that there might be a way of creating a new business for the Group. So I met the Director of the EDF Pulse Incubation entrepreneurial programme and talked to a former incubatee, who is now CEO of Metroscope, and off I went! 18 months later, Yxir came out of incubation and became the EDF Group's subsidiary specialising in industrial quality thanks to artificial intelligence.

You've been through an entrepreneurial adventure at EDF and today you're CEO of a Group subsidiary: what are the main lessons you've learnt? 

RT: It's quite difficult to look back, because the journey I've taken is so dizzying. But what's certain is that I'm not the same person I was 3 years ago, when I started the EDF Pulse Incubation adventure. Back then, I was the archetypal engineer, Cartesian, logical, sticking to my guns and sometimes a bit obtuse. I even hated picking up the phone! The entrepreneurial adventure helped me to get out of my comfort zone, to develop more commercial, interpersonal and influencing skills, because you quickly realise that logic isn't enough to sell a product, especially when you're dealing with 30 prospects every week! The incubator also prepared me from the outset to become a manager, so I felt a real sense of continuity between my incubation and taking up my position as CEO of Yxir. 

As well as the 'hard skills' and 'soft skills' that I was able to acquire through these experiences, I also learnt life lessons from them. EDF Pulse Incubation is above all a human adventure: you learn a huge amount in a few months and that's really great, but it's also very tiring. It's important to be well supported and to listen to yourself, so that you can maintain as much of a work-life balance as possible.

Has being a woman been a source of difficulties or advantages in your career? 

RT: I've never seen being a woman as something that could hold me back, or as a disadvantage. Like many women, I've come up against sexist or misogynist colleagues, but that never stopped me, and I quickly moved away from those people. In reality, I think the main disadvantage of women in business is that we often have imposter syndrome. This pushes us to take fewer risks, to put ourselves forward less and to position ourselves only in jobs where we're 100% sure we have the required skills. In the end, we often put up barriers ourselves, because we demand so much of ourselves. 

Being a woman, on the other hand, can be a real advantage. Personally, I love being a woman in a male environment, because you can easily surprise them, which is great fun. They expect us to be shy and frail when we're not, and that ability to surprise them where they least expect it is a real strength. I'm also convinced that we have a sensitivity, an empathy, an ability to project ourselves that facilitates communication - even if men are developing it more and more too, and that's all to the good! As a manager, this sensitivity makes it easier for me to defuse difficult situations. 

Of course, some people will always be embarrassed to be managed by a woman, but that's their problem, not mine. What's more, I've noticed that in general, and especially in technical professions, expertise takes precedence over everything else, including gender. And women are just as competent as men...

Women make up less than 30% of the workforce in industry and AI-related professions. What would you like to say to girls who are reluctant to go into these professions? 

RT: In my view, it's important to position yourself in the jobs of today and, above all, of the future. Artificial intelligence is one of the subjects that will play a major role in tomorrow's world. So it's absolutely vital that there are women in this field! After all, we can't risk losing the rights that so many women have fought to obtain for us... 

And of course, industry also needs women. Faced with the challenges of global warming, this sector needs to transform itself more than ever, and to do that it needs a fresh perspective. Men and women are different and they complement each other: it's only through gender diversity and the exchange of different points of view that we can transform industry and make it more efficient.

Women account for less than 28% of company directors in France. What does that tell you?

RT: It's sad! I think women typically censor themselves. They're no less competent, they just need to overcome their fears and dare to think outside the box. And I know what I'm talking about... I know very well that without EDF Pulse Incubation, I would never have embarked on an entrepreneurial adventure. But throughout my incubation, I had to fight against my natural inhibitions and take risks. I'm really lucky to be able to benefit from such a programme within EDF! And I even think it's great that a Group like EDF, which loves processes, has created a framework precisely to get out of the box. 

I also think that this result is linked to the fact that often, when you're in top management, you tend to surround yourself with people who look like you and operate in the same way, so that you can move forward in the same direction. I think that, on the contrary, they should surround themselves with very different people in order to be challenged and transformed, and that also means more diversity. I know it's not easy, because you have to be both assertive and a good listener. But for me it's the sign of a good leader, capable of taking the company and its employees to the right place.

Any last words? 

RT: I know that if I'm where I am today, it's also because I've been very lucky and met some wonderful people. And on that last point, I'd like to pay tribute to all the women's networks within EDF. They open a lot of doors and have helped me get to where I am today.