By Alain Klarsfeld

Between 2010 and 2012, three key Acts were promulgated, requiring businesses and administrations to make significant progress in terms of gender equality. The Act of 2011 focused particularly on gender balance on the administrative and supervisory boards of companies and public administrations. Here is an overview of the impact of this Act by the research professor Alain Klarsfeld.

Professional equality and the fight against discrimination: a mixed record for overall progress

Despite the laws and affirmative action in favor of employment equality and the fight against discrimination, only minor advances have been made in many areas. Companies have certainly gotten close to the legal quota of 6% required concerning employment for the disabled, whereas the proportion was barely 4% ten years ago, but this is still far from satisfactory. Regarding older workers, companies have also made real efforts to prolong their employment (+8% in 7 years), with a rate of 44.5% for 55-64 year-olds at the end of 2012, after a long period of stagnation during the 2000s. Among other positive developments, we should mention the creation in 2011 of an ombudsman (Défenseur des Droits), who joined the French High Authority for the Fight Against Discrimination and for Equality (HALDE) and whose role is to further the fight against discrimination by ensuring that access to one’s legal rights, now simplified and streamlined, is more effective.
However, the employment situation of young people remains a concern, and has not significantly improved. As an example, a young graduate with five years of higher education can take, on average, a year to find a first position, despite the legislative incentive known as the ” Contract between Generations*”. Similarly, the employment rate of people from immigration populations, whether first or second generation, has changed very little.

Unprecedented progress

There is nonetheless a silver lining to this rather gloomy picture: the entry of women into the governing bodies of companies and institutions: the supervisory boards. It all started with an Act of 2011 concerning the balanced representation of women and men on supervisory boards and also to professional equality, which provided for the progressive introduction of quotas as a step towards the feminization of the governing bodies of large companies. The goal was to reach 40% of women by 2017, made mandatory with financial and non-financial penalties in the event of non-compliance. This is a real cultural shift that has opened the way for women to play a major role.

The issue of quotas

Quota-based policies are not universally approved. In fact, they are frequently contested. Their implementation may even be counter-productive, as evidenced by the tensions around ethnic or caste quotas in India or Malaysia. There were no such quotas before 2008, when they were introduced by Norway, since followed by 11 other countries, but they have had an encouraging effect in favoring equality on supervisory boards. It might have been supposed that the women in these positions would be seen as lacking legitimacy. However, studies show that the operation and work of boards of directors are improved. Women who are genuinely recruited for their skills appear to be less conformist, ask more questions and make these bodies more dynamic.

This legal obligation has also had the effect of putting a stop to a damaging system of cooptation. The boards of directors tended to exist in isolation, coopting new members from among their acquaintances. The imposition of quotas has opened new horizons regarding professional recruitment processes, by head-hunters for example, who are now compiling databases of highly qualified women and offering them to apply to these positions. In the future, it would be a good idea to verify that the creation of directories of qualified people has led to the recruitment of more professional administrators overall, and not necessarily just women.

Positive trickle-down effect

Thanks to this Act, which imposes a “positive obligation”, offers have emerged for training as administrators, helping to make the role genuinely professional. In the years to come, it will be necessary to verify that the presence of women on boards of directors supports or provides leverage for parity in corporate executive positions, and that no further legislation is necessary to achieve parity. Already, outside the scope of the Act, major groups, including companies listed on the French CAC 40, have set themselves goals for the recruitment of female managers and top executives. This is less of a blunt instrument than an obligation to comply with quotas, but it will again be necessary to verify that its potential trickle-down effect in companies, at every hierarchical level, produces real progress.

* A scheme introduced in 2013 to help private companies create jobs, including permanent employment contracts for young people.

From an interview with Alain Klarsfeld and the chapter “Equality and Diversity in years of crisis in France”, co-authored with Anne-Françoise Bender and Jacqueline Laufer, published in the book “International Handbook on Diversity Management at Work – Country Perspectives on Diversity and Equal Treatment (second edition)”, May 2014.


Professional equality: This means the same rights and opportunities for both men and women, in particular as regards access to employment, working conditions, training, qualifications, mobility, promotion, work-life flexibility and remuneration (equal pay).


The chapter “Equality and diversity in years of crisis in France”, published in 2014, provides an up-to-date overview of developments in France concerning professional equality and diversity since the first edition of the book “International Handbook on Diversity Management at work – Country Perspectives on Diversity and Equal Treatment” was published in 2010. The book is the result of an analysis of changes to the European and French legislative framework and of the various reports and publications on the subject, as well as of paying attention to and monitoring the work of think-tanks, associations and businesses that deal with the fight against discrimination and the importance of diversity, in and outside of Europe.