France Is Urgently Trying To Close The Gender Gap In Boardrooms. Why Aren't We?

Women sunbathe in Tignes, southeastern France, on July 21, 2015. AFP PHOTO / LOIC VENANCE (Photo credit should read LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images)
Source: LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images

France isn't wasting any time when it come to addressing the business sector's longstanding gender gap. Currently, the country is at the forefront of the European Union's progressive push for achieving greater representation of women in corporate boardrooms. By 2017, women must make up at least 40 percent of board members in the 40 companies whose values most significantly contribute to the country's CAC 40 stock market index. If anything, the United States should consider adopting the urgency with which France is approaching this new initiative.

According to a parliamentary report, only 15 percent of CAC 40 board members were women when the law was agreed upon. After it officially passed in 2011, French corporations were allowed about six years to fully implement it. Now, that transition period is coming to a close, and if companies fail to fulfill the 40 percent quota, they will be barred from making any board changes that don't contribute to closing the gap. Remarkably, the parliamentary decision was agreed upon by Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative UMP party and the Socialist Party. The bipartisan decision faced some opposition from liberal parties, but only because they didn't believe it was strict enough.

France isn't the only European country that's beginning to veer towards greater representation of women in the workplace. European Commission Vice President Kristalina Georgieva is pushing for similar quotas in all EU countries by 2020.

Currently, two-thirds of the Commissions heads of units are male, putting into perspective the deep rootedness of this gender imbalance. In an interview with Politico, Georgieva referenced the importance of lifting up middle class women by making more opportunities available to them:

We have to seek more women to step into the pipeline, to get more women up … You make better decisions when you have a more diverse working place.

Unfortunately, France's law skips this part of the equation. Though it opens up a great number of positions to women, it does not encourage women to enter a higher echelon of the workforce. In a sense, CAC 40 board member positions remain reserved to women who are already in the corporate loop.

The relatively young law is generating various unintended effects that will likely catalyze amendments and stipulations to the piece of legislation in the future. For example, Fortune reported that over half of the recently appointed female board members are foreign, indicating that French women are not perceived as qualified enough. Secondly, CAC 40 companies are hiring the same women to fulfill multiple board positions. Neither of these repercussions suggest the law is making management positions more accessible to a greater number of French women. Most importantly, however, the first step has at least been taken — something that can't be said for the United States.

If the United States plays its cards right and manages to convince both Democrats and Republicans to agree on something, it could learn from both the positive and negative outcomes of France's law. Ideally, that knowledge would lead to an even better piece of legislation than was passed in France. But, even if the United States passed a similar bill tomorrow, they would find themselves almost five years behind France after allowing adequate time for implementation. Like climate change, which must be addressed sooner than later, economic equality between males and females must be balanced before it becomes a larger problem.

And for those who believe a quota won't succeed in ameliorating the gender gap, now is the time to step up and choose to hire more women. As of March 2015, only 19 percent of S&P 500 directors were women.

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