PARIS – Among the 2.5 million people who are illiterate in France, there are also executives from the corporate world.

Because of the jobs they hold, these people are very good at hiding their inability to read or write, making this phenomenon impossible to quantify -- some have dubbed it the “invisible affliction.” 

When he walks into the trading room of his bank, in Paris’ La Defense business district, Mickaël enters his world, “the world of numbers.” With his sharp suit and black tie, the 32-year-old looks the part of the high-flying trader. Despite his prestigious position, which is as lucrative as it is unpopular, this tall brown-haired man is illiterate. Never mind that he studied at Inseec, a Paris business school, a time during which he “almost never had to write anything.”

The case of this math genius is quite common. The less he wrote, the less he knew how to write. “I almost never have to write in my everyday life,” he admits. “When I had to write my first report, I just couldn’t. I was so ashamed of telling anyone.” 

Mickaël then proceeded to find ways to get out of reading and writing. At work, his best friend and colleague is the only one who knows: “he writes my daily reports and explains the new procedures to me.” He worries about the future, though – his friend will be leaving the bank next month. “Either I find a new colleague to talk to about this or I follow him to his new company,” he says.

According to a December 2012 survey by French statistics agency INSEE, 7% of the workforce in France isn't comfortable enough with writing and reading to understand a text, even though they have been to school for at least five years. Around seven out of ten illiterates are employed, though.

According to Benoit Hess, a sociologist specialized in illiteracy, these excellent technicians hide their writing difficulties by being very good orally. “The stakes are higher for them. Because of their responsibilities, they are under a lot pressure,” he says. According to him, it's harder for an executive to be illiterate than it is for a cleaning lady. And because their situation is considered to be extremely shameful, it sometimes leads to dramatic consequences: “People have committed suicide over this, they couldn't stand the pressure.”

According to the director of the French demographic research institute INED, France Guérin-Pace, author of “Illettrismes et parcours individuels” (“Illiteracy and personal paths”), Mickaël  “never managed to assimilate a basic reading knowledge, but managed to somehow finish school without ever addressing his problem.” 

Special tricks to get by

Pascal also lacks “basic knowledge.” He is the international head of training in a big hotel chain. He admits not “liking” the French language and that for him, learning to read and write was like a “punishment.” In primary school, he spent a lot of time in detention because of his terrible grammar and spelling skills. Since then, he has climbed the steps of the hotel industry, from cook to hotel director, a position he held on three different continents before reconverting as “counselor-trainer,” which allows him to create and supervise training courses.

For his professional reconversion, this 49-year-old with a deep voice and a soft round face had to obtain a master's degree. “No one could understand what I was writing, my thesis had to be read, re-read and corrected by several people,” he confesses.

He admits that these difficulties didn't help him professionally: “They took me off projects and clients because in my emails, I write like I speak.” However, like others like him, Pascal has special tricks: “When I need to describe a new training course, I never do it at the last minute, I make sure I have time for someone to correct my work,” he says, with a cheeky grin.

“During presentations, whenever I have to write something on the board or during training sessions, I can't make any mistakes, so I rehearse all night the day before. And I always have my notes on me just in case.” This worked fine until two years ago, when he had to hand some work at the last minute. His employers noticed his difficulties and “kindly” suggested he take a special literacy course.

With weekly sessions that last an hour and a half, Pascal’s literacy skills have been improving greatly. He's been taking grammar and syntax lessons: “It's like learning a new language,” he says. He's hoping to earn back his credibility, which he lost in the eyes of his colleagues. But he remains convinced that “the higher you are in the hierarchy, the simpler it is to be illiterate: there's always someone to delegate the tasks to!”

For these illiterate executives, the problem with writing often comes from a psychological rejection. Georges Marandon, a researcher, identified forms of individual resistance. According to him, the people who refuse to write  – not because they can't – are rejecting their family and school. “This reluctance to write is the expression of a problem, of suffering, of a revolt. The subject refuses to make the effort of acquiring the basic knowledge, which he or she believes is overrated or subjectively overrun by the environment he's fighting against.” Point being: it's all in your head.

Difficult to quantify

Professor Hugues Lenoir, a sociologist, says these kinds of cases import illiteracy into intellectual circles: “What’s interesting from a sociological aspect about these people who are resistant to writing is that this attitude often manifests itself in children whose parents are lawyers, doctors, etc.; have an intellectual profession or work in a field where writing is essential. This can lead to illiteracy in people who, from a sociological point of view, were not destined to be illiterate.”

Their social status renders these illiterates very hard to detect. When people are asked to look out for illiterate peers, they are told to ask themselves who could be affected. But targeting these executives and managers is very difficult, and convincing them to confess to their illiteracy and to learn how to read and write again is near impossible.

But that is precisely the goal of Benjamin Blavier, co-founder of the B’A’BA organization, which fights illiteracy in the corporate world. He is convinced that there are more and more such cases, even though companies refuse to admit it. “It’s unthinkable for them. It’s totally taboo.” He says there is only one way for things to change: “Someone must become the public symbol of these illiterates. And until someone comes out publicly in the press, CEOs will continue to think this phenomenon is pure fiction.”