France Sets Target For Women In Boardrooms

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The French government has put forward legislation that would see women make up half the figures in France's leading boardrooms within the next five years. In a bill modeled on similar legislation already in place in Norway, all companies listed on the Paris stock exchange would have to gradually add women directors to their boards until they make up 50 percent of board members by 2015.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And when it come gender equality in corporate America, the percentage of women on the boards of Fortune 500 companies is still only about 15 percent. In Norway, the number is much higher. It's more than 40 percent and that's because a law requires companies to make sure women make up 40 percent of the corporate boards. Now France is trying to follow Norway's lead. The government there has introduced a law that would require French companies to make their boards of directors 40 percent female within five years.

Eleanor Beardsley reports.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking in foreign language)

(Soundbite of applause)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: The French parliament is in the thick of a debate over to promote a gavotte between the sexes in the workplace. Never mind that female politicians make up only 17 percent of this chamber, lawmakers want French companies to open up their boards to women.

Jean-Francois Cope is a sponsor of the measure put forward by President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative party. Cope says the new law will be like an electric shock to French companies and force them to change their ways.

Mr. JEAN-FRANCOIS COPE (Majority Leader, French Parliament): The differences of remunerations between the women and men for the same job is really a problem, and if we want to improve on this field, we have to implement a legislation where the boards progressively going to an amount of 40 percent.

BEARDSLEY: Cope says more women on boards will trigger changes at the strategic center of companies where compensation and career opportunities are decided. French corporate boards have less than 8 percent women, one of the lowest levels in Europe and on a par with Turkey.

French lawmaker Francoise de Panafieu says she's 62 and has spent her entire life struggling in a man's world.

Ms. FRANCOISE DE PANAFIEU (Mayor, Paris' 17th district; National Assembly Lawmaker): (Through translator) Women face a real glass ceiling in France in the business world and in politics for any positions of real authority. It's as if the men have gotten together and conspired to keep out half of humanity.

BEARDSLEY: Panafieu says without a law forcing companies to put more women in key positions nothing will change. But the pro-business parliamentarian says its also important that the law be workable. She was set to vote against an earlier version of the bill which called for, in her words, an unrealistic 50 percent quota and unreasonable penalties for companies that didnt comply.

Ms. DE PANAFIEU: (Through translator) The question of gender parodies is essential, but we can't jeopardize the success of our companies. They provide jobs and employment is the number one concern of the French. Dont forget that we're in the middle of an economic crisis. We can't be excessive.

BEARDSLEY: Despite the historically entrenched opposition of business chiefs to quotas, advocates say the current bill is the result of a huge change in public attitudes towards gender equality. Today, it's hard to find anyone to speak out against a proposed law and even French figures not known for their feminist stances have endorsed the new corporate quotas. Other European countries too are changing their ways. Spain and the Netherlands have passed similar laws and Belgium, Britain and Germany are thinking about it.

Unidentified Woman: Oui. Bonjour.

BEARDSLEY: Receptionists man the switchboard at the worldwide headquarters of L'Oreal in Paris. But women dont just answer phones here. L'Oreal has been actively promoting women's careers for the past 25 years.

Mr. JEAN CLAUDE LE GRAND (Director of L'Oreal Recruitment): We all know that the crucial and the difficult point is with maternity leave, because it's at this moment that there is some discrimination.

BEARDSLEY: That's Jean Claude Le Grand, the man in charge of L'Oreals diversity and nondiscrimination unit. Le Grand says L'Oreal provides kindergarten facilities and maternity leave packages that allow women to maintain high-powered careers and have children.

A 2007 McKinsey study of the largest European companies found that for those with at least three women on their executive committees operating profit was nearly twice as high. While the study stopped short of attributing this performance to the presence of women, Le Grand believes diversity makes good business sense.

Mr. LE GRAND: It's clear that when there is a good balance between male and female, there is more creativity, there is more performance, there is more ideas, and we are more successful.

BEARDSLEY: Because it has already cultivated a pool of talented female executives, Le Grand says L'Oreal will not have a problem meeting the quota for its board, but that won't be the case for many other French companies. With support on both the right and left, the bill is likely to pass and become law by the end of the year then the hunt will be on for talented French businesswomen.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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