CEO Cunera Vlaar on 30 years in a man’s world

Cunera Vlaar
About the author : Cunera Vlaar

CEO of Sodexo’s Energy & Resources business in the UK and Ireland, Nordics and the Netherlands

Published on : 3/8/22
  • Nothing says ‘male-dominated environment’ like an offshore drilling rig in the 90s. And while there’s more women at sea today, Sodexo’s CEO of Energy & Resources was one of the first. Cunera Vlaar shares her experience, her advice and her goal: more women forging great careers in a truly inspirational industry.

    Learning about life offshore 

    I was 22 when my friend told me about a job opening at Sodexo in the Netherlands. It was with the team that supported offshore rigs, construction platforms and dredging vessels. I’d just finished studying Facilities Management, and the chance to do it on things that float was too good to miss. 

    Cunera VlaarI’m CEO now, but I learnt offshore life by cleaning bedrooms, working in the galleys and operating laundries. It hadn’t occurred to me that I’d be one of the few women around, and from the build of the rigs it was clear no one else had thought of it either. Some had four people to a bedroom and a shower in the corridor. I had to use the bathroom in the hospital block. 


    Being clear about barriers

    I had to adjust quickly, and so did the men on board. And that’s the great thing about this industry, it’s full of people who solve problems for a living. I explained the practical barriers I faced and the issues they caused, and they found a solution.

    Not having access to basic facilities is the kind of stark, visible barrier that you see less of today. That’s partly because women demanded it and partly because everyone’s expectations are higher - we now fit out single-berth rooms with ensuite bathrooms. But barriers still persist in things like PPE design, so we have to keep talking about it because that’s how things will change. 


    Changing perceptions about ‘jobs for women’  

    As well as raising a few eyebrows when I started, there was definitely some hesitancy about whether a woman would be the right fit for a senior role. Thankfully, I had a line manager who saw my potential, encouraged me, and set clear expectations from those around him. 

    I also had the benefit of a supportive employer as my life changed. I’d been in several global roles before I had my twin boys, even working on one of my favourite projects – the salvage of the Kursk nuclear submarine – while heavily pregnant. After they were born, I was able to reduce the amount that I travel, and I think this flexibility will become far more common now that Covid-19 has shown the potential of remote working. 


    Advice for working in a man’s world 

    My first bit of advice is ‘come join us’. The energy and resources sector is tackling the biggest issues of our time and innovating at a pace few other industries can match. It needs different viewpoints, different life experiences, new ideas – it’s a hugely exciting time to get involved. 

    On a more personal note, here’s what I’ve learnt over 30 years:

    • Being ‘one of the boys’ won’t help. What matters is authenticity, so be open and clear with the people around you. Once you stop trying to be someone else, you’ll be happier, more decisive and a far better leader. 
    • Rule yourself in. Don’t look at the 10 competencies on a job advert and think ‘well I can only do four really well.’ Four is great! We have to confront our own bias around what we’re capable of, and it’s something I wish I’d learnt sooner. 
    • Network, network, network. Talking to people outside my environment has always brought something new to my career. There’s all kinds of insight and opportunities that you’ll miss if you stay in a bubble. 


    Pushing for gender equality 

    I do think the world is becoming more equal, although not quite fast enough. I’m on the advisory board of Sodexo’s SoTogether network so I can keep trying to level the playing field. We consider everything from candidate selection to policies to how we engage our colleagues, clients and partners, looking for specific improvements that can break down hidden barriers.  

    And just like the quality of accommodation you get on an offshore site, if you make things better for women, you will make things better for everyone.  

    Find out more about gender balance at Sodexo


    Cunera Vlaar is CEO of Sodexo’s Energy & Resources business in the UK and Ireland, Nordics and the Netherlands