Women Leaders Index Gender Equality Case Study: France

By on 05/09/2017 | Updated on 06/02/2018
The Women leaders Index examines gender equality in France's senior civil service

Every country has a different story to tell on women leaders in the civil service. Interviewing experts on the findings of our Women Leaders Index – which tracks the proportion of female senior civil servants, national politicians and business leaders in G20 and EU member states – we’ve examined the agenda’s achievements and the remaining obstacles in 11 national case studies

If there is one G20 country that has lessons to teach about how to boost the proportion of women leaders, it is France.

In 2013, when the Women Leaders Index first began tracking the G20, just over one in five of France’s so-called ‘higher public servants’ were female. In each of the years since, this proportion has improved solidly; and in the most recent year France posted the biggest jump of any country, at six percentage points. It’s now equal with Mexico in joint seventh place, with 34% women in its senior civil service ranks; and its impressive growth rate suggests it could well supplant one of the top six countries within the next year or two.

France also earns plaudits in other areas. With 36.8% of its corporate board seats held by women, France takes top spot in the G20 on this metric; and it equals Canada on the proportion of female Cabinet ministers, at 50%.

With this record France, like Mexico, has shown without doubt that the introduction of quotas –whatever one may think of their longer-term consequences – does work in driving up the numbers of women winning senior civil service jobs.

What’s more, France has moved from a standpoint of stiff opposition to gender quotas in politics, to a position where it now applies gender quotas across several policy domains. As Eléonore Lépinard from the University of Lausanne states in a recent paper on the subject: “Once a country allergic to any policy that would look like affirmative action for women or any other social group, let alone quotas with fixed targets, France has transformed in a decade and a half into the land of gender quotas.”

Nowadays, France imposes gender quotas for university juries, government ministries, corporate boards of medium and large firms, supervisory boards of public institutions, higher civil servant posts for hospitals and other public institutions, professional organisations, sports federations, regional socio-economic councils, and most elected political bodies.

Yet as recently as the mid-‘90s, the word ‘quota’ was itself taboo in discussions on gender parity in politics. The very idea of a target to achieve special treatment for women was dismissed as un-Republican, un-French and contradictory to the principle of equality, says Lépinard. So what changed?

Essentially, when the Socialists unexpectedly returned to power in 1997, they changed the Constitution to include the following sentence: “the law promotes women’s and men’s equal access to electoral mandates and elective functions”. This introduced not only a legal change, whereby positive-action measures for women were given constitutional legitimacy for the first time, but also a semantic change – from ‘equality’ to ‘parity’. Women’s rights activists seized on this and reframed the debate around the principle of parity.

The establishment of the Observatory of Parity kept up the pressure, and helped to spread gender quotas beyond electoral politics. In 2011, corporate board quotas of 40% women were adopted; and a year later the same quota was imposed for higher public service functions, with a target of 40% to be reached by 2018.

Socialist President François Hollande later replaced the Observatory with the High Council for Equality between women and men, which has a broader mission and more staff than its predecessor. Among its members are senior civil servants in charge of gender equality in each ministry, charged with mainstreaming gender equality into the everyday business of civil service organisations.

Lépinard concludes: “Once a measure depicted as a foreign import and hotly debated in the public sphere, gender quotas have become a legitimate and unproblematic means to redress gender imbalance.”


Click here for the full results of Global Government Forum’s 2016-17 Women Leaders Index

Or click through to our case studies on Australia, Canada, FinlandGermany, Ireland, Italy, Malta, Mexico, Turkey and the UK.

About Tania Mason

Journalist and an expert in organisational and management issues.

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