Breaking the glass ceiling in companies: the French recipe

(c) Women's Forum

(c) Women’s Forum

I was in Deauville to follow the Women’s Forum Global Meeting from 16 to 18 October. The various sessions were organised around three main concepts: Compete, Cooperate, Create. Practically in every session the speakers stressed that diversity, and gender diversity, are key to innovation and successful businesses.

To increase the number of women in leadership positions, namely in executive boards, is not only a question of rights and of equality at work for women and men, it is also a strategic issue for companies, especially in the current crisis context.

How is France, the country hosting the Women’s Forum, tackling the glass ceiling in companies? A law passed in 2011 set quotas on women’s presence on boards of directors or supervisory boards at 20% by 2012 and 40% by 2017; the 20% objective has already been achieved by several large companies.

Najat Vallaud-Belgakem, Minister of Women’s Rights and government spokesperson, believes that laws are important and must be enforced, but incitation and accompanying measures are equally necessary. Quotas at the top are only part of the solution; training and opportunities are needed at the bottom, where women are over-represented in part-time jobs with limited career progress. 

To create competition among employers, the Minister asked the cabinet Ethics & Boards to produce a ranking of France’s 120 largest companies based on a set of criteria: gender representation in boards, committees and management, and gender equality policies. She presented the results of this first-time exercise, the Palmarès des entreprises, in Deauville.

The main purpose is to showcase the companies at the top of the list as examples of best practices, encouraging the others to follow. “We couldn’t put all the elements of gender equality into law, so we played with the image and reputation of companies in ranking them”,said the Minister. It will now be possible to monitor progress from one year to the next. Broadening the scope to 120 companies enabled smaller companies to be among the top five, showing that gender equality policies can be succesfully applied in all contexts. 

The publication of the “Palmarès” was one of the highlights during the first “Week of professional equality” ever organised in France. In Deauville Najat Vallaud-Belgakem also illustrated a series of new initiatives, in the framework of her bill on gender equality, which will be presented to the National Assembly in January, following its adoption by the Senate last September.

For the first time in France a law will be tackling various dimensions of gender equality using an integrated approach. The law will focus on four main domains: professional equality, fight against precarity, gender-based violence, and gender balance in bodies and companies. It will combine specific measures with the overall mainstreaming of the principles and objectives of equality into all public policies and at all levels (government, national and local authorities).

New initiatives include a proposed law that would require companies with more than 50 employees bidding for government contracts to show that they have achieved gender parity. In order to encourage companies to work toward gender parity, they have been asked to sign conventions committing to that goal. Large companies will help smaller companies by making available the tools they have developed.

The reform of parental leave is certainly one of the key measures of the gender-equality law. Currently 96% of parental leave beneficiaries are women, while only 18,000 men are taking advantage of this possibiility. Therefore, from mid-2014, a six-month period will be reserved for the “second parent”, in addition to the existing rights for families with children. The objective is to enable 100,000 men (representing 25% of fathers) to take parental leave by 2017. 

Finally, Najat Vallaud-Belgakem presented a reminder that only 12% of the French working population is employed in a mixed‐gender profession, shocking evidence of a strong horizontal professional segregation in France, where most professions are male- or female-dominated. In 2014 the Minister will launch a big awareness-raising campaign on gender diversity at work, a transversal campaign that will involve all stakeholders, including parents, schools, employers, and government.

Watch the video of the keynote interview of Minister Najat Vallaud-Belgakem with Annie Kahn, Journalist at Le Monde :

Check out the Palmarès des entreprises 2013

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Specialist in Equality, Diversity & inclusion
L-1469 Luxembourg

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