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‘We need to pull women up, rather than always expecting them to push’

Dr Janice Byrne notes many similarities between France and Ireland on gender issues

Irishwoman Dr Janice Byrne is associate professor in organisational behaviour and human resources at the IESEG School of Management in Paris. Her research areas include gender and entrepreneurship, gender and family business, and parenthood and work.

"When we talk about diversity – or mixite as the French refer to it – contemporary organisational debates here usually centre on gender, a lot on disability, and to a lesser extent age, but ethnicity or race remain pretty much taboo or very difficult to discuss, as French law prohibits the collection of any data based on race, ethnicity or religion,"she says.

She believes there are a number of contrasts and parallels between Ireland and France on gender equality which are worth noting.

The first is the so-called Copé-Zimmermann law of 2011 which requires companies to ensure their corporate boards are made up of 40 per cent women.


“The National Women’s Council of Ireland has called for quotas, saying we need a national action plan and that targeted measures will help us get more women in the boardroom,” she says.

It has certainly made a difference to the numbers in France, with the targets being met and many boards now exceeding the 40 per cent threshold. Quotas are, however, not without their detractors.

“There was some initial resistance, although change has been achieved,” says Byrne. “There are also ways around quotas. Some firms use circumvention strategies such as decreasing the total number of board members to increase the percentage of females. There is the ‘golden skirt’ issue as well, where you get the same women on multiple boards.”

Interestingly, she says, there is no proven link between diverse boards and improved performance. “Research in France has concluded that the country’s new quota system has changed the way boards made decisions, although there was no change in the substance of the decisions. It also found that the process changed, not because the new members were women, but because they were more likely to be outsiders.”

Parental leave

Turning to parental leave, she points out that French fathers are currently allowed 11 days’ paid leave and that there are calls for that to be extended to four weeks and made obligatory.

“The idea is that if we don’t change paternity leave legislation, change in the family unit in terms of division of labour, who is primarily responsible for domestic and childcare duties, is just not going to happen, or will happen at an incredibly slow and incremental pace,” she adds.

“Ireland is one of only six EU countries where employers are not obliged to pay workers if they take parental leave. The Irish Government plans to introduce two weeks’ paid parental leave and Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty has said Ireland should follow the lead of Finland and Norway and make it obligatory.”

Another issue which will be familiar to Irish working women is the “mental load” – the idea that the burden of remembering, and usually also executing, the various tasks required to keep a household ticking over is, in many cases, shouldered by the woman of the house, no matter how demanding her career or job.

“The mental load means that even when women are at work, they are thinking about what they have to do at home,” Byrne explains. “So, when you are working on one task, but you have too many other things in your head, you have a cognitive overload.”

The French comic artist Emma has brought this issue to public attention through a cartoon strip that illustrates the tasks women take on.

“It shows the male partner expecting his partner to ask him to do things, ‘why didn’t you just say?’ and emphasising how this habit over-burdens women. This has been very thought-provoking, making both men and women a little more aware of the apparently insidious ways that inequality can creep into our daily lives.”

Finally, she talks about the French version of "lean in", known as oser, French for "to dare".

"In the US and Ireland, we talk about women having to lean in or push for their place in the workforce and how it is their responsibility to go after leadership positions," she notes. "Similarly in France, we talk about women and ambition, and women needing to oser or dare more; to take their place."

She regards this as a woman-blaming approach – a case of “if you haven’t made it, it’s because you haven’t pushed hard enough”.

“In France, just as in Ireland perhaps, this blame-the-women approach is rife and if we accept this idea, we don’t change the system. It’s a bit like the difficulties hotels had in getting customers to turn off the lights when they left their rooms. They eventually solved the problem by using the room key to activate the lights. They realised that the hotel needed to change, not the customer. We have to stop blaming the women, let’s think about what can be changed in the system or the organisation that can help ‘pull’ women up, rather than always expecting the women to push themselves.”

Barry McCall

Barry McCall is a contributor to The Irish Times