Germany started the move in 2020, and now it’s France’s turn.

By Avivah Wittenberg-Cox

After quotas on corporate boards spread across Europe in recent years, countries are now pointing their legislation at Executive leadership. In a historic vote, France’s Parliament this week voted to introduce gender quotas on the Executive Teams and leadership pipelines of companies over 1,000 people. The targets set are 30% minimum of either gender by 2027, 40% by 2030.

This is what leadership looks like. Emmanuel Macron made gender balance one of the top priorities of his 5-year term. And he appointed an experienced leader from the tech sector to give it momentum. Elisabeth Moreno, France’s Minister Delegate for Gender Equality, spent decades in tech working for DELL, Lenovo and HP, where she saw corporate gender balancing efforts from close up.

“I’ve spent 30 years in the private sector. There are a lot of people who talk, talk, talk about more gender balance. But there is a lot more talk than there is action.” France may often be seen as a macho country, and there is still much sexism across the land, but the tide is turning and the last decade of political pushing has shifted opinions. France’s top companies, known as the CAC40, are slowly but surely integrating the change.

The shift began a decade ago with Board quotas – set at 40% minimum of either gender – known as the Cope Zimmerman law. After being hotly debated, it caused a spectacular balancing, with the country’s CAC40 Boards catapulting from 10% women in 2009 to 45% by 2019. That puts France in the lead amongst European countries, and in 2nd place worldwide on Board gender balance (after Iceland, which is at 46% women, 54% men). The specious arguments that there were not enough sufficiently qualified women to achieve the quota, or that the quality of boards would suffer from under-qualified women, have (mostly) disappeared. In 2018, France went further by introducing laws on pay parity and full transparency of gender balance statistics. But despite the shift at Board levels, Executive Leadership balance has dragged well behind, as it has in most countries. Given the success of board quotas in bringing about change, many people who were initially sceptical of the legislative hammer have come around to accepting its effectiveness.

The draft law goes well beyond legislating gender balance at the top, it also aims to redress the hugely regressive hit that women took during the pandemic. “Women were on the frontlines everywhere during Covid,” says Moreno. “They dominate the sectors that were most crucial: health, education, distribution, cleaning services. But they were also the first to lose their jobs, the least-paid and recognised, the ones who had to care for kids when schools shut down, while maintaining homes and jobs. An impossible ask! As Simone De Beauvoir presciently predicted, all it takes is an economic or social crisis for the rights of women to slide backwards. She was right. And this law seeks to address that.”

The new law also includes measures aimed at addressing women’s issues more broadly. It subtly gets into where and to whom social payments are made, to ensure that it lands in women’s bank accounts rather than in their husbands’. It prioritises access for single parents to day care, and has a focus on supporting women into entrepreneurship, currently at a low level of 30%. This reflects the gradual mainstreaming of women’s issues into the political agenda, something also evident in the US with Biden’s proposals integrating many of Elisabeth Warren’s ideas on care. The unanimous vote in France’s Parliament shows that this reframing is becoming more widely accepted.

The proposal now needs to go the Senate and get passed before the end of Macron’s term as President. “My dream is parity everywhere,” explains Moreno. “It’s like the digital revolution, which has become totally transversal. From health care and cyber-security to economics and artificial intelligence, digital is everywhere. The same is true for women. Otherwise, these systems remain biased and imbalanced.” 

The complexity of gender balancing is that it affects countries, companies and couples in an inter-dependent play of cause and effect. To implement balance sustainably, it takes a combination of public pressure and private sector adaptation. Most Anglo-Saxon countries have preferred leaving these initiatives to the private sector. The UK allowed Boards to have voluntary targets but has more recently voted in pay gap legislation and shared parental leave. In the US, even top Boards aren’t reaching 30% women. The Biden administration is stepping up on the issue with its new Gender Equity Council. It reports directly into the President and involves almost every cabinet secretary. But whether such a steep hill can be climbed without quotas remains to be seen. 

France is a case study in what proactive public policy setting can aspire to – and its private sector is adapting. Will other countries be inspired by its approach? Who’s next?


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