EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Is gender equality at work a mirage?

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In his New Year address to the representatives of the nation’s working population in January, President Jacques Chirac requested that the government introduce a bill aimed at achieving gender pay equality within five years before Parliament without delay. On 24 March 2005, Minister for Parity and Gender Equality at Work, Nicole Ameline, presented her Bill on gender pay equality.

The Bill presented by Nicole Ameline, Minister for Parity and Gender Equality at Work, aims to abolish gender pay discrepancies within five years as part of the process of strengthening industrial relations dialogue. The Bill provides for mandatory collective bargaining and ensuring that maternity leave does not penalise women in terms of their progress through the pay scales. It is no longer a matter of having to take action, but of having to obtain satisfactory results.

Gender equality at work: Where do women stand?

Despite several pieces of legislation, a gender pay discrepancy of around 25% still exists in France. Even though analyses of gender pay discrepancies have highlighted the various types of reasoning behind gender differentiation and segmentation, both in terms of jobs and education and training programmes, they have also stressed the existence (all else being equal) of a kind of residue or pay gap of between approximately 6% and 13% that cannot be explained by these factors.

Far from disappearing, the gender pay gap is still going strong, and even widening inter-generationally. This growth in the discrepancy over a 20-year period for new entrants into the labour market is mainly due to the status of the jobs held by women (especially part-time work). The income gap stigmatises all the jobs occupied by women, including managerial posts: 'a female senior manager earns one-third less than her male counterpart' (Insee Première, March 2004 ).

In spite of a robust legal arsenal of anti-discriminatory provisions, women still frequently experience pay discrimination.

Gender equality at work: Where does the law stand?

This Bill is the fourth legal instrument developed to combat gender inequality at work. Previously, three Acts had been passed:

  • The first in 1972 on pay equality (equal pay for equal work).
  • The 1983 Roudy Act on gender equality at work.
  • The 2001 Génisson Act, which makes bargaining on the issue at company level, as well as the production of an annual report on equality, mandatory.

Three years after the Génisson Act, the results in terms of gender equality at work have not been as good as expected. Nevertheless, the social partners did sign a cross-sector agreement in April 2004 (FR0404104F) to bring about equality in recruitment, training, career development, etc.

An IFOP survey carried out in October 2004 at the request of the Senate’s Women’s Rights Task force (Délégation aux droits des femmes), polled 2,005 heads of human resources in companies with more than 50 employees, and demonstrated the lack of interest in the obligation to bargain on gender equality at work. Around 72% of the firms had never held special talks on this issue, and only in 19% of the companies had the specific bargaining set out in the Act taken place in 2004.

A considerable discrepancy between companies, depending on their size, emerged from the poll. In the larger companies, where unions have a stronger presence, a relatively higher percentage carries out bargaining on this issue. So while overall, 12% of heads of human resources interviewed stated that specific bargaining had occurred, the rate rises to 22% for businesses with 1,000 or more employees.

Another mandatory duty was set out in the Génisson Act: the addition of the objective of gender equality to the other mandatory themes for annual talks. More than half the firms in the IFOP survey (52%) had not complied with this obligation.

The Bill’s objectives

Although its main goals are to abolish pay discrepancies and attain a better work-life balance, the Bill is also aimed at achieving two more objectives:

  • Promoting women’s access to all jobs.
  • Improving access for women of all ages to apprenticeships and ongoing vocational training.

The Bill’s main objective is to abolish gender pay discrepancies. This is to be done over a maximum period of five years, through sector and company-level negotiations and on the basis of precise indicators (taken from the mandatory annual comparative report on the relative situations of men and women within the company, which itself must be supplemented by a breakdown of the company’s stock-option scheme by gender of employee).

  • At sector level, if no bargaining has begun in the year following the enactment of the Act, a union with representative status can request that talks start immediately. Moreover, a national sector-level collective agreement cannot be extended if no provision on the elimination of gender pay discrepancies is included. In order to avoid the failure of talks or lack of bargaining, the Minister of Employment is to set up a commission with an equal number of representatives of employers and unions in the relevant sector.
  • Companies will have to begin negotiations with unions in order to table measures to eliminate gender pay discrepancies. Agreements on actual wages can only be legitimately filed with the Départemental Offices of the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Vocational Training (Directions Départementales du travail, de l'emploi et de la formation professionnelle, DDTEFP) if a minuted declaration of commitment to bargaining on gender pay equality is included.

Secondly, a national conference on gender pay equality is to provide a snapshot of how the law is being applied. If required, the government will then present a Bill establishing a financial contribution levied on the labour costs of companies that have not begun talks on the issue.

The Bill bolsters women’s entitlement to maternity leave. Where there is no provision in sector- or company-level agreements to compensate for the financial consequences of maternity leave, in addition to general pay rises, an employee will be granted the average individual wage rise received during the period of leave by workers in the same occupational category. Female employees discriminated against due to pregnancy will see the burden of proof switched to the employer in any consequent tribunal. The Bill establishes a flat-rate grant of EUR 400 to enable firms with fewer than 50 employees to find temporary cover for women workers on maternity or adoption leave.

The Bill also aims to promote women’s access to decision-making bodies and labour tribunals. One of the objectives is to ensure a greater degree of gender balance on the boards of state-owned companies.

It also emphasises the improvement of vocational training for women of all ages. Sector-level agreements may provide for an increase of at least 10% in the training grant given to an employee incurring extra childcare costs in order to attend training sessions outside working hours.


This new Bill has been labelled 'timid' and even 'half-hearted' by the unions. The French Christian Workers’ Confederation (Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens, CFTC) wants 'financial penalties'. The General Confederation of Labour - Force ouvrière (Confédération générale du travail - Force ouvrière, CGT-FO) says it is 'annoyed' that the government 'is not considering another Bill in which penalties will be set out' for another three years. For the CGT-FO, bargaining and the implementation of timely and practical provisions along the same lines in the areas of vocational training, working conditions and career development should be developed using methods and provisions particularly addressing maternity. The French Democratic Confederation of Labour (Confédération française démocratique du travail, CFDT) wonders what the point of this law is, given that the social partners signed an agreement on the matter a year ago. Moreover, the Bill contains no statistical targets and does not affect the public sector. In the opinion of the General Confederation of Labour’s (Confédération générale du travail, CGT) managerial staff section (the UGICT), the Bill is a step in the right direction but is still very limited and does not impose anything more stringent than the legislation already on the books, apart from a few extras, plus details primarily added in order to comply with the requirement to incorporate EC directives into national law.


Ostensibly, the legal situation in France on gender inequality at work does not require more legislation, but the enforcement of the existing French and EU legislation. In terms of gender equality, EC law is still ahead of French law and if they wanted to, companies could already institute actions aimed at correcting pay inequality. This, then, is one more law to be added to all those that have so far remained ineffectual. (Christèle Meilland, IRES)

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