Economic and Social Council proposes measures to combat glass ceiling for women

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In December 2000, France's Economic and Social Council adopted an opinion setting out recommendations on increasing the presence of women in decision-making positions. The Council proposes a number of measures, such as improving the image of women, undertaking positive action and reviewing parental leave and childcare provisions.

On 20 December 2000, the Economic and Social Council (Conseil Economique et Social, CES) (FR9910115N) adopted an opinion on the presence of women in decision-making positions by 125 votes to 1, with 48 abstentions. The report on which the opinion was based, presented by Michèle Cotta, stresses a paradoxical element of female employment patterns: although women have entered the labour market in large numbers over the past three decades, they are still few and far between in decision-making positions. Women are scarce in the upper echelons of company hierarchies, while at the same time "low levels of female involvement are also found in the management structures of employers' associations and trade unions, as well as in chambers of commerce and other business organisations, and professional associations."

The CES report shares the objectives and analysis of the new law on gender equality at work (FR0010196F) passed at its second reading by the National Assembly on 29 November 2000. However, the legislation has a markedly broader scope, not least because it advocates bargaining on gender equality at company and sector levels (based particularly on the content of companies' mandatory annual report on the comparative situation of men and women) and also removes the ban on women working at night, while emphasising that this practice should remain the exception, both for men and women.


Ms Cotta's report is divided into three parts. The report:

  1. provides a thorough statistical overview of the position of women in the labour market (female participation rates rose from 48.7% in 1969 to 80.6% in 2000, according to the INSEE Labour Force Survey), highlighting the course that this growing female labour force participation has followed and placing it in both French and EU contexts (stressing the institutional framework, the role of the childcare system, and the education system);
  2. identifies the existing forms of discrimination hampering women's access to positions of responsibility and positions with decision-making functions, pointing to the under-representation of women in company boardrooms and the upper levels of the civil service; and
  3. outlines possible explanations for these forms of discrimination. Since levels of education can no longer account for the gender differentiation identified on the labour market, Ms Cotta stresses the cultural - ie behavioural and attitudinal - aspects ( such as the prejudices which result in large numbers of girls following some specific educational paths). The report suggests that, in fact, although legislative or regulatory measures may be necessary to establish new rights and obligations, what is really crucial is to put in place mechanisms that will act as incentives and support structures for change in pursuit of gender equality in the workplace.

On the basis of this report, the opinion passed by the CES in December 2000 contains arguments, recommendations and proposals aimed at facilitating attitudinal and behavioural change on the issue of gender equality at work. This motion is based on three main proposals.

Making the image of women more positive

The report stresses one of the paradoxes of female employment. Women are over-represented among clerical staff and middle management, and are relatively well represented in high-ranking intellectual jobs. Between 1962 and 1982, the number of women in senior management positions increased practically fivefold, and between 1982 and 1999 this trend continued. However, "it is as if they were invisible", and the economic elite appears predominantly male. The image of women seems scarcely to have improved, and there is a lack of information about the position of women in French society. The CES advocates the organisation of national information campaigns on the various professions in order to highlight the existing gender balance within them, which should be bolstered.

Undertaking positive action

In the public sector, the CES advocates that the government and ministers demonstrate their resolve by appointing women to positions of responsibility "less timidly than at present and in proportions more in keeping with the size of the potential existing in the relevant groups of employees". Additionally, the government has a duty to issue directions to ensure that the principle of equal access for men and women to responsible positions is adhered to.

In the private sector, two priorities are identified. First, there has to be an attempt to impose detailed targets on human resources managers and professionals, and deadlines on companies where levels of women in managerial posts have remained notoriously low. Second, emphasis has to be placed on eliminating discrimination in wage levels for men and women. The CES also wants the practice of "gender mainstreaming"" to become widespread in all sectors."

Establishing a more dynamic family policy

To make family policy more dynamic and thereby facilitate equal opportunities, the CES advocates: strengthening measures for childcare support for young children in order to increase the number of places in childcare facilities for such children; and redirecting subsidies towards childcare provision in the home, thus enabling more households to gain access to this form of childcare.

A second proposed strand of family policy is incentives for a greater sharing of family tasks and responsibilities between women and men. Here, the report advocates splitting parental leave between the two parents (beginning with a 70%-30% mother-father split, in order to bring about a process of steady change in behaviour and attitudes), and making parental leave financially attractive. The CES has suggested that parental leave benefit (allocation parentale d'éducation) should be increased to compensate for all of the parent's lost net income up to a maximum of FRF 14,950 per month. Part-time parental leave should also be compensated pro rata, according to the same rule, and the minimum weekly part-time working hours should be raised from 16 to 20 hours, to avoid short-time part-time jobs being created. The total duration of parental leave should be shortened to one year (instead of the current 146 weeks). The goal is also to overhaul part-time parental leave so that the time off could be used at any point during the period when the person's children are of eligible age, and could possibly be split into several periods.

Lastly, the report floats the idea of creating a "new arrival leave" for fathers, lasting for at least a month following the birth of the child.

Response from the social partners

The CES opinion has been warmly received by the trade unions, even if some of them have voiced reservations. CFDT greeted the basic content, but would like it to be one of many future steps in the transformation of women's presence in decision-making circles. The CGT-FO group on the CES voted for the opinion, as did that of UNSA. However, CFE-CGC abstained over an amendment requiring the legislator to impose gender parity within the CES and Regional Economic and Social Councils, beginning with the next round of appointments, which it believes "ignores the sociological reality of the groups comprising these bodies". CFTC also abstained but for different reasons. Totally opposed to the move to change parental leave benefit, it felt that such a change would in no way address the problem of women's access to positions of responsibility. CGT abstained too, wishing to introduce some amendments of its own.


The CES report deals only with women's access to senior management positions but the proposals adopted are actually of a broader nature. The fact remains that if gender equality is becoming an issue at work, it should also become one in the home. (Christelle Meilland, IRES)

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