Professional Women in France: The Chutes and Ladders

diverse women in the boardroomHow easy is it for French woman to climb the corporate ladder in modern day France? France is currently a regional leader when it comes to wage parity and the participation of women in top corporate positions. However there is still much that needs to be done to reach true gender equality in the French business world. Much of the recent work done by France to reach equality was started in 2011 when France officially set quotas regulating the amount of women present in directorial and supervisory boards on large French companies. The quota aimed for 20% female participation by 2012 and 40% by 2017. And while some companies and political bodies are still struggling to achieve the 2012 goal, several other large companies have hit the mark and are well on their way to the 40% female occupancy mandated by 2017.

Najat Vallaud-Belgakem, the French Minister of Women’s Rights said that quotas at top tier positions are only part of the solution. She cites training and increased opportunity at the bottom rungs of French companies are what’s truly needed to change French society. Currently, French women are over-represented in part-time jobs which have little chance for career advancement.

And of those women who are well represented, they seem to be concentrated in a few key areas such as the retail and service industries. Vallaud-Belgakem recently said that only 12% of France’s working population is employed within a mixed gender profession. This is evidence of a strong culture of professional segregation alive in France today. Most French industries are either overwhelmingly male or female dominated.

French politics today remains, like certain industries a definite old boys club. The Assemblée Nationale, the Lower House of France’s congress, remains resolutely male, with only 18 per cent of seats held by women. And with the introduction of the quotas in 2011 some big parties have shown they prefer to pay fines rather than introduce the mandatory numbers of women to their ranks.

A Socialist woman politician, who asked not to be named, recently told the Independent that macho attitudes remained dominant in French politics, even on the supposedly progressive Left. “If a man makes a mistake, he’s a poor politician or a poor manager. If a woman makes a mistake, then she is the mistake. She should never have been appointed in the first place.” This attitude is characterized by an incident where Cecile Duflot, the former Housing Minister, appeared in the National Assembly wearing a white and blue summer dress, she immediately received catcalls from other members of the national assembly. The anonymous Socialist politician said: “It is difficult for some French men. But the world is changing, whether they like it or not.”

This seems to characterize a prevalent belief in French society that women are not suitable for leadership. Florence Montreynaud, a leading feminist activist in France stated,“It is still very difficult for a woman to be accepted in a position of power in this country. It may not always be easy for women elsewhere but it is very, very difficult in France. Here, if a man has a strong personality, people say: ‘Isn’t he a powerful character?’ If a woman has a strong personality, they say: ‘isn’t she a difficult person? Isn’t she impossible to work with?’” Montreynaud says this feeling is sometimes characterized in the way French media refer to prominent French women. “Have you noticed, that prominent women in France are called by their first names? It is always Segolene, not Madame Royal. It is Atomic Annie, not Madame Lauvergeon. In a whole page of articles in Le Monde about Madame Nougayrède’s departure, she was constantly referred to as Natalie. That disgusts me. It is way of diminishing people, infantilizing them.” When it comes to high power business roles this attitude can make it hard for women to be taken seriously. “What is very difficult in France is for a woman to be both powerful and feminine. They have to dress like men, with severe suits and short hair, if they want to be half-way accepted,” said Montreynaud.

The present reality and the future progress

But attitudes in government and business seem to be changing. Initially many high profile businesswomen opposed the encroachment of quotas. Some believed that the tight deadlines would result in a wave of unqualified women into high level positions and result in even more discrimination. But after years of trying to change what is seen as the old guard, many now see the quotas a something of a necessary evil. Anne Lauvergeon, the chief of the nuclear power giant Areva said, “The situation in France is abnormal. If we cannot manage otherwise then let’s make things move with quotas.”

Since the introduction of the quotas back in 2011, the rate of women serving on boards of directors or supervisory boards of prominent CAC 40 companies rose by 7.4 points. In just 5 years this rise has tripled the amount of women in these key advisory roles. According to the Ethics and Boards Cabinet, on the 1st of June 2014, 30.3% of boards of directors and supervisory boards within CAC 40 companies were women. France as a whole has had the largest increase in its share of women in governance roles out of all countries within the European Union with an increase of 17.4%.

But despite the progress in general governance bodies within large French companies there is still a long way to go when it comes to the feminization of French executive boards. Between September 2013 and June 2014 the rate of women in CAC 40 companies and SBF 120 companies increased only 0.3 and 0.1 points respectively. This puts these executive boards as of June 2014 at a low 10.3% and 12.1%.

By Ben Rozon