Prof. Viviane de Beaufort, European spokeswoman for gender equality and corporate governance and founder of the ‘Women Board Ready’ programme at ESSEC Business School, looks at gender parity – especially in France – and women’s path to corporate boards and governance.
With kind acknowledgements to Prof. Viviane de Beaufort and DiliTrust.
By the mid-2000s, the presence of women on corporate boards in large French companies had only slowly progressed from 6% of seats in 1998 to 8 % in 2006(1).
Judging this increase too slow, and notably following the example of Norway which had imposed quotas on the number of women on corporate boards since 2003, the French Parliament voted a law (Coppé-Zimmermann Act) in 2011 relating to the balanced representation of women and men within boards of governance and supervisory boards and professional equality. The project was to create two steps for quotas: 20% in 2014 and 40% for the 1st of January 2017. This obligation concerns listed companies and companies with more than 500 employees; it has been extended to companies with more than 250 employees since January 1st, 2020.
According to Ethics & Boards – an observatory on governance in European listed companies – women held 43.6 % of administrator seats of companies included in the SBF 120 French stock market index in 2020.
But women still have to go to a lot of trouble to enter through the door of management committees.
Gender parity in governance after two decades of struggle
For Prof. Viviane de Beaufort, the situation today in France is largely positive for the big corporates and the question of for or against gender quotas in no longer one to ask in terms of leverage. However, feminizing Boards of Governance and Supervisory Boards by taking on competent women as external or independent administrators is one thing. Giving them full room for manoeuvre is another. As such, the current struggle to lead is all about chairing over committees – and it is progressing. Internal questioning about the place of women on Executive and Management Committees has taken precedence – and along with it comes the issue of women’s place on Boards of Directors.
There have been several recent debates on the relevance of a quota measure (see the HCE – French Higher Council for Gender Equality – report on the subject). Although very committed to the cause, Prof. de Beaufort tends to raise a red flag regarding quotas on executive and management committees: ‘it’s not by clicking your fingers that women should be promoted to the highest levels of a company,’ states Viviane de Beaufort, ‘but by long-term vision, setting objectives and milestones and selection according to effective results and record. It is indeed needed – and urgent – to take any measure possible to break with the recurring problem of insufficient presence of women at the top of the pyramid of power: from the recruitment of feminine talent to their valorization and promotion, to the taking into account of parental leave and so on.’
‘It is worth focusing for a moment on the scope of the Coppé/Zimmerman law in France,’ adds prof. de Beaufort, ‘which in January 2020, and in a deathly silence, was understood to be applicable to companies with a headcount up to 250 employees. The problem still, is that of it being extremely difficult – in the absence of official reporting – to know if these larger SMEs are compliant. It’s a subject that has been tackled for several years with regular reminders from female networks (AFECA – The Association of Women Chartered Accountants) and the HCE. The information should systematically feature in the Penicaud Employee Equality Index, an initiative set up by the French government to monitor equal opportunities between men and women at work.‘
Is there still a role for the French state in helping women enter boards through developing their talent?
‘It seems that the state has been successful by progressively creating the required legal amount of vocational training,’ asserts Viviane de Beaufort. ‘That is, excepting the area mentioned earlier – that of smaller companies where mandatory reporting must support and strengthen this change of culture.
It’s now up to the companies themselves to continue along that avenue – both in accordance with board efficiency (greater diversity = greater effectiveness) and CSR policy where the ‘S’ includes the major question of Gender Equality.
Being in a position to name leaders who sit on a Board or Committee means revising the whole system by employing now largely proven measures – the presence of women’s CVs at each step in the process, privileged access to training, notably soft skills, setting up leader mentoring, from them, or the setting up of recruitment pools among women’s corporate internal networks, to name a few.’
Women’s voice: Is it heard and are women’s recommendations taken into account?
‘The question is complex,” states Prof. Viviane de Beaufort, ‘and I can only give my own feelings here in the light of what I hear notably within the alumnae network of Women Board Ready ESSEC and others I belong to or for which I’m an advisor such as the FFA (Fédération Femmes Administrateurs) or PWNParis. I’ve also observed it when carrying out a study on woman and power in 2011 (2). There is a double bind which comes into play and that can create a difficulty of posture – not of skills – for women in boards whatever the level. Having previously been side-lined from these bodies of power and influence, they have an idealised expectation of how they work – and being a minority they can suffer from an imposter complex. So what happens?
They will very seriously and professionally prepare boards sessions, question issues, and attempt to bring added value. This done, and although being virtuous in nature, women can consequently end up running straight into the dominant codes in place, the board sometimes amounting to a chamber for rubber stamping the CEO’s decisions and where putting in your two cents’ is just not done. It is not for women to change but for the boards to evolve their way of working! And I advise and train women in assertive resistance. Dare, but also practise alliance-building strategies within boards to avoid remaining isolated.’
Employee equality today
Transparency creates the benchmark and, as such, alignment of practices. ‘We can identify a number of companies in France today which have planned for very tangible catch up practices,’ says de Beaufort. ‘This being said, the game is far from being won and, especially, nothing is simple. At times, it’s difficult to set up equivalent posts for women. And let’s not forget the nagging problem of a potential break in a woman’s career for child bearing and rearing. For me, encouraging both parents to raise their children by every means seems the only real way forward. As we may notice, many employees in their thirties – including very involved dads – make life decisions and choices rather than career decisions. I’ve also remarked that in the Y Generation women and men contractualize their couple – for example, one partner slowing down their career for three to five years to found a family and then going on to do an MBA to catch up, upon which the other partner takes up the family carer role. Companies haven’t yet sufficiently taken on board the behaviours of these young talents even if we can find in them part of the solution.’
Women – be Board-ready!
Being a member of a Board of Governance in the role of an external administrator isn’t based on the same approach as accessing and sitting on a Management Committee. ‘In the first scenario,’ states de Beaufort, ‘the question is how to highlight and give value to your career path to convince those holding the power (your CEO, the nominating committee when there is one, the recruitment agency). It’s also about ensuring the right fit – do you identify with the company’s values and its way of operating? Is the company available and open to what you have to offer and say? Boards are becoming more professional and luckily the time consecrated to diverse views and discussion is growing. Be careful right from the beginning, excepting if you are already independent, and check that your company accepts the idea that you would sit on a board. If need be, get trained up – governance is a specific expertise. Carry out intelligence work on the sectors that interest you and identify companies that you’re attracted to. Don’t hesitate to be an advisor then administrator in charities or startups.
Being part of a Board of Directors is a major step in your career successand signifies that you have risen to the top, but also – and often difficult for women – stepping out of your comfort zone and skills area. Having worked in HR all your career, for example, will lead to you being invited to the Board of Directors or find a seat there without being given full membership – notably because it will be thought that you only possess an area-specific point of view of the company which needs 360° leaders. And yet, a great number of women committed to their mission do not at all calculate “career”, and do not necessarily identify that in-the-field operational experience will make the difference. In a nutshell, it means rolling up your sleeves and going for sales and marketing or a business unit or the like.
‘Lastly – a surprise,’ says Prof. de Beaufort: ‘Everything I’ve said is both true and false at the same time! Let me explain,’ she continues: ‘The world is changing so fast that there are indeed several fundamental elements which I’m convinced will remain true – developing your skills, daring as a woman and for your company, changing recruitment reflexes and changing the strict conception of what a career should look like – but the rest, I’m not so sure anymore. What is a career? Personally, I prefer the less constraining word of ‘path’. I have and continue to have several posts within the same job title. I think we will all – both women and men – be obliged to constantly reinvent ourselves.’
- Bender Anne-Françoise, Dang Rey, Scotto Marie-José, « Les profils des femmes membres des conseils d’administration en France », Travail, genre et sociétés, 2016/1 (n° 35), p. 67-85. DOI: 10.3917/tgs.035.0067. URL : https://www.cairn.info/revue-travail-genre-et-societes-2016-1-page-67.htm
- La France championne du monde de la féminisation des conseils d’administration, article paru au journal Les Echos, écrit par Laurence Boisseau, publié le 7 mars 2019, https://www.lesechos.fr/finance-marches/marches-financiers/la-france-championne-du-monde-de-la-feminisation-des-conseils-dadministration-996466
- Link up with Prof. Viviane de Beaufort via LinkedIn
- Browse Vivian de Beaufort’s books and publications
- Discover the Advanced Certificate Women Be Board Ready programme at ESSEC
- Study a GMBA or bi-campus EMBA at ESSEC Business School, France-Singapore-Morocco.
Learn more about the Council on Business & Society
- Website: www.council-business-society.org
- Twitter: @The_CoBS
- LinkedIn: the-council-on-business-&-society
The Council on Business & Society (The CoBS), visionary in its conception and purpose, was created in 2011, and is dedicated to promoting responsible leadership and tackling issues at the crossroads of business and society including sustainability, diversity, ethical leadership and the place responsible business has to play in contributing to the common good.
In 2020, member schools now number 7, all “Triple Crown” accredited AACSB, EQUIS and AMBA and leaders in their respective countries.