New French Quotas for Businesswomen

The Guardian reports that France’s center-right party, that of President Nicolas Sarkozy, has proposed legislation that sets benchmarks for businesses to bring women into the boardroom:

In a bill submitted to the French parliament this week, all companies listed on the Paris stock exchange would have to ensure female employees made up 50% of their board members by 2015. If passed, a gradual implementation of the law would see businesses obliged to have women in 20% of board seats within 18 months, and 40% within four years.

As of June 2008, women only comprised 9.7% of the top 300 European company boardrooms. Norway’s female representation in boardrooms grew from 22% in 2004 to 44.2% after quota legislation in 2008. The bill, to be debated in January, follows a 2000 effort to advocate for the same equality within the French government. And still:

France’s failure to impose parity on its politicians, despite a constitution change in 2000 which had the aim of giving women a larger presence in the French parliament, is one of the reasons many people remain sceptical about this week’s proposals. At the last election, only 18% of MPs in the lower house were women.
Françoise de Panafieu, one of those MPs, hit out today at her own party for setting out quotas for the business world when it had failed to put its own house in order. “I prefer people setting an example to those giving lessons,” she told L’Express magazine, claiming that Sarkozy’s party had had to pay €5m (£4.5m) in fines after the 2007 elections for failing to impose parity.

How telling, that Panafieu must hold her party accountable for the promise. The quotas appear to be limited only by enforcement–which will likely come from businesswomen themselves. One question raised by another French businesswoman in the debate has been largely ignored: are quotas humiliating when they provide upward mobility and access for hundreds?

Join the Conversation

  • susanstohelit

    I support improving women’s access to positions of authority in the business world, but I’m not sure if quotas are the way to do it. Even if all the women selected to fill these quotas are just as qualified as their male colleagues, there’s a risk that their colleagues won’t see it that way and will, instead, dismiss them as incompetent and only having been selected in order to fill that quota. Of course, maybe once these women are in these roles and prove their competence, this attitude will change, and then the quotas will have accomplished their goal – it just seems a bit like solving the symptom (not enough women in leadership positions) and not the cause (sexism, discrimination, etc)

  • history punk

    They tried something similar for Yugoslavia, but for ethnicity instead of gender. It was a complete clusterfuck as idiot people were promoted based on ethnicity, idiot decisions were then taken based on the idiot ideas of those appointed not for merit but because oflegally mandated quotas, and each instance became further proof that the ethnic group of a member was a stupid, lazy, corrupt, .
    In the end, it failed to improve representation at most levels. Ethnic quotas gave the JNA (Yugoslav army) the appearance of balance, but the lower ranks still remained heavily Serb because of broader cultural and social factors.
    Czechoslovakia had a similar program for Czechs and Slovaks. It worked as about as well as the Yugoslav program.
    However, I am sure it’ll work this time.

  • caeron

    I have to agree.
    If you do quotas, then it immediately transforms all the women board members into second class citizens who are there only because of the quota, not because of their competence.
    It might be interesting to do the quotas for say 10 years, and then drop them. It would force the companies to look for and develop female talent without turning it into a perpetual quota system. You would face the second class citizen problem in the short term though.
    It is a hard problem to solve when people naturally self-select for folks like themselves and you want to break that cycle.

  • SFTechPerson

    I think it’s time to short French companies, it could be a boon for the smart investor.
    The problem with executive level stuff is the hiring is done by the basis of business and personal relationships. I wouldn’t call it “boys club” strictly, since you see this in many competence-oriented jobs where smart people tend to cluster and get each other hired. Is it nepotism when a smart person refers their smart friend from a previous company, or is it just good hiring practices?
    There is nothing more risky for a business than to hire someone, and using personal connections to make those ties is how hiring is done at many levels, like it or not.
    The person who leaves work strictly at 530pm and never stays late, or goes out with their coworkers is limiting their career no matter what the job position or title is. If you want the higher positions, you have to put in the time.
    Remember, that an executive is responsible for billions of dollars, so yes, executives tend to flow from company to company, and breaking in for people who arent interested in working 80 hours/week for a decade is tough.

  • Laura D.

    Yeah, I don’t agree with the quotas. As much as I would love to have more women in a position of power (in the business world and everywhere else), I just don’t think quotas are the way to do it, as Caeron said. Women can prove their capability without these quotas. Women who are brought in to fill these quotas could possibly be treated as a “burden” because some are just there to fill a space. For example, if their was a less-experienced woman and a more-experienced man competing for the same position in a company, and quotas were implemented, the woman would wrongly be chosen. Assuming this particular man was more experienced than the woman, it would be unfair to him for being rejected simply because the woman was a “minority”. Women should be encouraged into the business world, but not by acting as fillers.

  • Comrade Kevin

    The elitism in the French university system is worse than ours and this is where this problems stems. Sexism is a major problem in French society, of course, but also is a nationalist/racialist strain that eliminates opportunity for all but those who are allowed into the old boy’s club known as higher education.
    Let’s not look at things through a specifically gendered lens in this situation, though gender does need to be recognized. More women should be included in universities, at which point they would be in a prime position to take boardroom positions. Intersectionality at play again.

  • SFTechPerson

    Then we should hire away french women to other countries if they are any good. Problem solved!
    It’s fairly common to travel afar to make your name then return as a hero later on. Embrace nomadism!

  • libdevil

    What passes for center-right in France would be far-out fringe left wing in the US. Not even worthy of admittance into the public discourse.

  • Ariel

    I tend to agree– but isn’t it possible that this new system will encourage more women to launch themselves into economics programs and business schools?

  • Z

    I don’t think quotas are a good choice. There are so many ways that they can backfire. I was introduced to an interesting concept a few days back, which I’m probably behind the times in knowing about. In the NFL, you’re required to at least interview a minority before you hire a coach. There is no requirement about who you hire (and if no minority tries to apply you can still fill the position), but you have to at least give someone the chance. Would a similar concept work here? I know even if a woman does get an interview it doesn’t mean she won’t just be dismissed, but I think it would be a good step.

  • MisukoB

    I think a quota system is a good thing to have, because it is a way to change and to combat sexism that creates a bias thowards men when it comes to high positions within the business world.
    And this bias also creates an indirect quota system for men.
    Recently I read that in countris in Scandinavia such as Norway who has a quota system in place, there was a lot of arguments against this similiar to the arguments against quota in this thread, but in the end is has proven to work just as many of us who argu for the quota system has said for years.
    This system is a way to break the indirect quota of men to high positions.

  • aka spike the cat

    To those who ignore history this looks like two wrongs to make it right. The fact is that quotas if done properly are very effective.
    First off, women are not ethnic minorities. That is not the comparison to make. Women are roughly half the adult population and although some individual women will be dealing with the double blow of sexism and institutionalized racism, most women will not have to deal with language and cultural barriers that tend to make perceptions harder, sometimes impossible, to overcome. Furthermore women already swell the ranks in European Universities alongside men.
    And for someone who commented about brain draining French women to other countries, France needs a generation of women to get their foot in the door IN FRANCE so that the culture and perceptions of women in business changes IN FRANCE. French little girls and boys of today need this.
    The current system is essentially a quota system for middle-upper class males. I don’t see anybody complaining that men are being humiliated because of this. People who think quotas magically turn folks into being seen as second class citizens need to realize that people ARE already being treated as such.
    Damn, how soon we forget. WOMEN have been the biggest beneficiaries of Affirmative Action in the US and in 1 generation it has completely changed century’s old attitudes and expectations about women’s capabilities and intelligence.
    And quotas have been in place in something like 25% of American colleges (sources, 60 minutes, US NEWS, et, al) in favor of MALE students to keep the gender ratios at parity.

  • Stephanie89

    Have you ever lived in France or are you just basing that comment on outdated stereotypes about how magically progressive Europeans are?

  • TD

    Well if more women entered economics departments that would be good, except I don’t think that would be the quickest route to become an executive. Most economists I’ve known haven’t had those particular ambitions they have all tended to aim more modestly.
    But actually I don’t think that would solve the problem. From studies I’ve read women tend to be more responsive to grades in selecting their major. This combines with the issue that many departments grade according to varying degrees of difficulty.
    How this can play out to the disadvantage of gender ratio in majors is that you could have a student who took courses in economics and psychology, both have a similar subject (psychology is the study of the mind, microeconomics is the study of singular entity’s decisions) she might get a B+ in economics and an A- in psychology. That might place her in the top 85% for psychology and the top 95% for economics. Yet to the student it appears that she is more capable at psychology than economics even though this is not the case.

  • Alex Catgirl

    I have to agree with much of what you say.
    1.) Women are not a minority, we are the MAJORITY. the plight of women is more analogous to that of blacks in South Africa than ethnic minorities in Serbia or Czechoslovakia
    2.) Like their American counterparts, European females make up the majority of university students in many fields, so it’s not like the women who will benefit from the quota system are un/under qualified candidates, more likely they would of been the victims of the established old boys club JUST AS THEY ARE IN THE US.
    3.) Life is a giant game of Go!, not cshess. The object of go is to claim as much empty territory as possible. Quotas claim the future.
    Women do not have to meet the goals on schedule, what is really important is to codify the goals in stone, so when they are not being met, it’s perceived as a problem/short coming/failure.
    As of June 2008, women only comprised 9.7% of the top 300 European company boardrooms.
    That took 40 years, is this generation willing to do what our mothers did? Wait another 40 years for it to become 20%? That’s another one of the real questions.

  • DBinMD

    This seems like a great idea and my only thought is why not try it in the US. But why stop at women? I say go for complete demographic representation at every level. Each job should be 51% female, 13% black, etc. You have a job to fill, first you consult the census for your town, then you will know what sex and/or color of the people you should be looking for to fill that job.

  • aronian

    I think this is simply discrimination. One reason for the male dominance there is, that there are simply a lot more men who strive to get that job.
    Nobody ever promoted the idea to implement quotes for male nurses or female construction workers.

  • TD

    More to the point, there were more men who aimed for that job thirty to forty years ago.
    Looking at top executives is not looking at the state of society now, its looking at the cumulative effects of society for the past fifty years (Average age for a CEO in a fortune 500 company is late 50s)
    If you’re thinking of a person who grew up in the 1950s graduated university during Vietnam they would have been exposed to significant amounts of sexism in their early careers, indeed in their schooling, which would influence their decisions to devote themselves to a career path which would send them to the top of their company.
    Their experiences however are not indicative of a younger woman’s experiences today, the world has changed and the top positions will always be slow to reflect that because they are lagging indicators of equality.

  • dawn_of_the_bread

    I’ve lived in France and speak fluent French and I can confirm that in many, many areas the French conservatives would be considered Lefty in the US.
    Economics. The French are into higher taxes and state intervention across the board.
    Social policy. On homosexuality, abortion, capital punishment and religion, the French “Right” are with the US “Left” on most issues. On immigration however Sarkozy et al are closer to the US centre ground.
    The truth is that the political discourse in Europe *is* way to the left on the US left-right spectrum. It’s normal for politicians to have communist backgrounds, and the words socialist and communist are not cuss words like in America. In other ways Europeans can be more conservative, however.

  • Gular

    While it makes it possible, quotas limit the ability of a company to hire the competent (as noted above). An Affirmative Action-style law, with all its flaws, would allow women to break into the system without burdening companies to hire under-qualified or under-talented people into its ranks. While Affirmative Action is rife with problems, quotas create more ready problems of discrimination against everyone (are quotas helping or patronizing?) than does ensuring that the hiring/promoting practices are balanced.

  • Gular

    From what I’ve learned (with no personal experience of living in the culture), once race and immigration are pulled from the table European politics are very “lefty”. However, Race and Immigration are hugely pressing, intertwined issues in France and greater Europe.

  • Gular

    my only thought is why not try it in the US
    The SCOTUS said it was illegal.

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