What women want: As leaders and professionals

What women want: As leaders and professionals

With ESSEC Knowledge Editor-in-chief

My work is part of my social identity, it’s a key way I feel valued. But [my] personal and professional lives often clash.

This quote, one of 274 gathered in a recent study, sums up the position of French professional women, who feel like their work is a calling, but aren’t prepared to give everything up for it. It’s one of the key lessons we can take from the study, another being that there’s often a clash between one’s values when one notices the discrepancy between public dialogue and practices that expect leaders to be irreproachable.       

Equality is a fundamental value of France, and gender equality must be a priority. It’s also one of the 17 sustainable development goals of the United Nations, and Emmanuel Macron made it part of its first mandate. Elisabeth Borne’s recent appointment as Prime Minister is a powerful symbol of how times are changing, as are recent legislations like the Penicaud index and the Rixain law. Despite this, other women turned the post of Prime Minister down before Borne accepted it. This prominent example seems to represent a more systemic trend : what happens when women in power turn down promotions, even as the tides are changing, in part thanks to the Cope-Zimmerman law ? The quotas imposed by the Rixain law for 2026 motivate companies to promote gender equality in leadership – but certain skilled women are hesitating or refusing when approached. Why?

As part of the CEDE-ESSEC Women Empowerment Research program, Viviane de Beaufort led a study on female leaders on why they may sidestep promotions. She questioned alumnae of the ESSEC Women Be Board Ready program to better understand the career drivers and needs of female leaders in France, a situation that is evolving after COVID-19.   

The pandemic has had an impact on how many of us see our life’s ambitions. It’s made us dream of meaningful work and a life outside the office, and realize how many sacrifices we need to make to climb the career ladder. Women have often been more accepting, but now, like the younger generation, they’re looking for organizations that will support them during their career, that will offer equal pay for equal work and that will respect their work-life balance. They’re looking for companies that  practice what they preach, have a more horizontal hierarchy, are trustworthy, and work toward the common good. 

The women who participated (over 100 of them) all have illustrious professional careers, with varying degrees, trajectories, experiences, and sectors. Their in-depth knowledge of power and governance structures after having done the aforementioned program make them the ideal sample to explore this emerging trend and see if it may become a more systemic movement. 

When offered a promotion, women are stating their conditions and considering their ability or, indeed, their duty to change the system from the inside – or to reject it. 

For 67% of participants, their professional life is a source of intellectual fulfilment, progression, and accomplishment. But this professional fulfillment must coexist with their overall life (as noted 61%), and while 56% mentioned that their work is critical for their financial needs, they aren’t willing to give everything up. 

What makes almost half of these women hesitate, even though 81% have not previously refused a promotion – what makes them refuse the final ascension to an executive-level job ? Three key reasons emerged. The first is no surprise, but the other two are food for thought for companies.

1. Family reasons (44%): concern over having less time for one’s family. When moving is in the cards, like an overseas assignment, 73% refuse. 

2. Personal reasons: this includes fear of professional exhaustion, noted by 1 in 5 participants, imposter syndrome (36%), and, more positively, another life goal (55%). 

3. Professional reasons: such as a conflict between their idea of the job and the reality (49%), insufficient autonomy or resources (59%), and a disconnect between the discourse and the reality of the power differential between them and their superiors (84%). 

The participants clearly expressed their key needs and made concrete suggestions on what to do. 

So what should companies do ? Leadership should commit to fostering a diverse working environment at all decision-making levels. Women rising to positions of power should permit the implementation of a more balanced way of working for everyone, men included. 

Here are some ideas :

· An equitable recruitment process : don’t eliminate those with kids or of a certain age right off the bat. It’s up to the individual to decide if the post suits them, and not up to the organization to decide that they aren’t up to the task because of their personal situation. 

· Support and a strong integration process to support people in new roles and give them the tools they need to succeed (mentioned by 73.8% of participants)

· Ending a culture of presenteeism and implement flexible working conditions, like remote work (mentioned by 69.9% of participants)

· Having internal policies that support diversity, that encourage the promotion of women to leadership positions, and offer the necessary training, mentoring, coaching, and access (mentioned by 70.8% of participants)

· And of course, equal and fair pay.   

It’s time to consider what makes an exemplary leader, described as the one that represents a company’s values and makes them credible and sought-after while the war for talents is raging. Companies that aren’t female-friendly risk losing female talents, in addition to being in non-compliance with the legal requirements (quotas) at the level of the management and governance bodies, and risking sanctions. 


de Beaufort, V. " Le pas de côté de femmes dirigeantes ?" Centre Européen de Droit et Economie - Essec. Working Paper 2208 - avril 2022. URL: https://www.academia.edu/80171918/WP_CERESSEC_CEDE_ESSEC_Viviane_de_Beaufort_2022_avec_le_collectif_WOMEN_BOARD_READY_ESSEC

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