Women on boards: State of affairs in France and Europe

Women on boards: State of affairs in France and Europe

With ESSEC Knowledge Editor-in-chief

Gender equality is a fundamental value of France: it’s even alluded to in the national motto, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity). It’s also one of the 17 development objectives outlined by the United Nations. While we have made strides in recent years, achieving true equality is still a lofty ambition, and work needs to be done in all sectors. In France, recent laws have led to change: Viviane de Beaufort analyzes the effect of these laws, recent updates in France and the European Union, and next steps for the path towards equality in the workplace. 

The cost of inequality 

There is a wealth of academic research, conducted in the United States and more recently in Europe, too, that points to the value of gender diversity for organizations: it has many benefits, including to innovation, performance, and productivity but also in terms of good reputation and CSR issues (c.f. 1, 2, 3). Employees also indicate that they have a higher quality of life at work when women are in power according to a study of Fortune 500 companies (4). In France, Michel Ferrary created the SKEMA Observatoire de la féminisations des entreprises, finding that the 15 companies with the highest proportion of women showed growth of over 240% over a ten-year period from 2009-2019, compared to 43% for the CAC40 companies (5). In other words, the more women in power, the more stock market value. 

The current state of affairs 

In 2011, the Assemblée Nationale in France adopted the Copé-Zimmerman law, which imposed quotas to promote balanced representation of women on corporate boards, which has applied to companies with more than 250 employees since January 2020. While the implementation of quotas raised some eyebrows, the law has achieved its goal for the larger enterprises. The question of quotas still makes some people uneasy, with some pointing to the values of the Republic and the merit of meritocracy as reasons against it. However, right now the focus should not be on whether or not quotas are right: it should be on finding a solution that works. Quotas have proven themselves to be just that. In France, women now make up 46% of big corporate boards, establishing France as a leader in Europe. But if this law has worked for large companies and especially listed companies, the situation does not seem to be the same for smaller companies: a study by KPMG in 2019, presented at the Assises de la parité in Paris (6), establishes that on average only 25% of boards of directors are female. However, these figures should be taken with caution because outside the perimeter of the rating, the data is not provided. This is one of the flaws of the law and enriching the Pénicaud index with this data could be a way to create transparency.

The Copé/Zimmermann law did not have the expected effect on the management bodies. There is only one female leader of a CAC40 company (Catherine MacGregor, Engie), and the proportion of women in management bodies is clearly insufficient. In the words of Elisabeth Moreno, Minister for Equality between Women and Men: "The CAC40 is still a club for men in grey suits! (7) Unfortunately, this is also true for the SBF120. So what should we do? Let's quote Elisabeth Moreno again: "I am in favor of a law. Without quotas, things don't change. Giving women the opportunity to sit at the strategic decision-making table is a question of performance, competitiveness and attracting talent. Otherwise, inequalities will increase while our economy is being rebuilt. Setting quotas is neither removing one domination to put another, nor imposing women who do not have the skills. I am not asking for charity. There is talent and will in our country, and we must use it. " (7). This is one of the issues of the proposition #EconomicEquality adopted in the National Assembly and under consideration in the Senate. 

What should the State do? 

The bill introduced by Marie-Pierre Rixain, MP, and adopted on May 12th at the National Assembly proposes a further step towards economic equality. It includes, in addition to a series of provisions relating to single-parent families, 70% of which are headed by women, and the implementation of measures related to improved access to funding granted by the BPI funds for projects led by entrepreneurs, and increased reporting on establishing gender equality in management positions with a quota of 30% raised to 40% later. Some criticize the text for a lack of ambition due to the scope concerned: companies with more than 1000 employees and the far-off deadlines (2028 then 2030), while others see it as an unacceptable and unenforceable measure. The details, as is often the case in France, will be settled by decree, and the devil is in the details, as is often said. Whatever one thinks of the text, let's take it as the result of a compromise and a possible legal lever for change likely to create the desired ripple effect, because attacking the citadel of management obviously requires that companies that have not done so, or that have done so inadequately, rework their HR policy in terms of gender equality from A to Z. Note that article 5 deals with the actions of the Grandes Écoles in terms of gender equality. What is the relationship? A close relationship: because if companies are able to recruit more young girls in so-called male fields and if stereotypes are not deconstructed, or at least made aware, a virtuous spiral is established between these female students and their counterparts of the opposite sex, who are the future managers. If the work is carried out previously, the company's policy is facilitated.

On a European level, the European Commission has also launched the Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025, listing political objectives and concrete actions. The key objectives include ending gender-based violence, combatting stereotypes, and reducing the gender wage gap. This strategy also advises that women be included in the political response to the pandemic and that the needs of women be considered in the response. This is both to preserve the gains of past decades, but also to create a more equitable world for both men and women. For President Ursula von der Leyen, “women must be at the center of the recovery”. 

More data is needed to track progress and keep companies accountable to internal and external stakeholders. More regulations and yes, quotas, would prove useful for small and medium enterprises. Since the data has revealed that regulations like quotas work, it is critical for both the French and European governments to back new laws and initiatives that will pave the way for equality. 

It should be emphasized that once again, the achievement of these objectives risks facing the absence of data, at least outside the scope of the rating, to establish the findings and monitor progress. Hence, at the European Union level, the idea of establishing a mandatory reporting on salaries inspired by the French Pénicaud index. As the AFECA, Terra Nova and the HCE propose to enrich the Pénicaud index with a status report on gender diversity in management positions, it does not seem absurd to propose to the European Commission to extend its future equal pay index in the same way.   

How are companies reacting?

Companies are increasingly aware of the need to act, and although their motivations may vary, many have already taken steps to promote gender equality. Sodexo, which has long been an exemplary company in this area, and more broadly in its diversity policy, has announced its commitment to ensuring that 40% of its senior managers are women by 2025, and has launched a group called "SoTogether" which supports equality at all levels of the company. Other large companies such as L'Oreal, Engie, and BNPP have made significant progress recently. On a smaller scale, we can question the effect of new fund policies that scrutinize the gender mix of teams in SMEs and startups. One would have hoped that this progress would be the result of proactive approaches. By encouraging this progress with a policy of equal opportunities proposed by the HCE, which Viviane de Beaufort supports, the State and the European Union could make considerable progress. Incentives rather than sanctions!

Next steps 

France has made significant progress toward gender equality in recent years, but there is yet more work to be done. Notably, gender equality has taken a hit thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, with many women taking on a heavier load of the domestic burden and disproportionately impacting women in the workforce. Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary-General, warned that progress made in recent decades is at risk of being nullified thanks to the pandemic (8). Policy-makers must prioritize gender equality in the post-crisis period through deliberate legislation and policies that reshape public attitudes and accelerate progress. 

It is also important to integrate gender and an intersectional perspective into crisis stimulus packages: the post-crisis period should focus on green initiatives and redistribute resources in an equitable manner. 

Viviane de Beaufort and Martin Richer of Terra Nova (9) have proposed several solutions for decision-makers to support and encourage gender equality in the workplace. 

For public policies: 

  •  Limit the length of board terms and the number of terms a person can hold at any one time, to allow for change

  • Be flexible, not lax, in the implementation of quotas, be able to make adjustments, especially considering the plethora of challenges facing companies today: COVID-19, climate change, CSR… 

  • Grant companies flexibility in defining their management body and the qualification of management positions; 

  • If there is a sanction, because it is necessary to be credible, the punishment of non-compliance is not the ultimate goal. In this respect, creating incentives for those who are less impressive in terms of gender equality or those who objectively have difficulties (size of the company and sector concerned) seems more interesting. This is where ega-conditionality is mentioned, which consists of granting advantages or giving preference to exemplary companies for public contracts and the granting of subsidies

For company policies: 

  • Take stock of the situation by using the Pénicaud index as an opportunity to inform and raise awareness

  • Set clear objectives for gender diversity with a timetable and regularly share the results, progress and obstacles

  • Recruit more women in so-called male fields or professions by adopting a proactive policy in schools and universities and a sincere and objective "female friendly" policy (work-life balance, remote work, flexible hours, etc.)

  • Facilitate access for women to executive management programs such as MBAs and EMBAs in order to catch up on their careers (especially after a period of maternity)*

  • Develop in-house mentoring opportunities and short programs on soft skills to combat minority postures*;

  • Encourage participation in women's or mixed professional networks, both internal and external, as women still neglect these career levers (due to lack of time);

  • Ensure that promotion criteria counter gender bias and ask managers to encourage women to apply for jobs

*the starred measures are also strong levers for improving socioeconomic, cultural, and age diversity 

 Gender equality has come a long way, but now we must all be more ambitious. It is with inclusive, diverse leadership that we can best face the complex challenges our world faces as we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis and continue to battle the climate crisis.

The issue of gender diversity systematically opens up to the broader issue of diversity, which is lacking in France, where the elite leaders are largely from the same background. Only a more inclusive and diversified leadership will allow us to take up the difficult challenges our world is facing because it allows us to think out of the box, it requires us to see, listen to others and accept each other’s differences rather than conforming to the same mold. The COVID-19 pandemic is not just a crisis, but an upheaval of the system that has brutally accelerated.  A recovery can only be achieved by integrating CSR at the heart of all public and corporate strategies.


  1. Boulouta, I. (2013). Hidden connections: The link between board gender diversity and corporate social performance. Journal of Business Ethics, 113(2), 185-197.

  2. Zhang, L. (2020). An institutional approach to gender diversity and firm performance. Organization Science, 31(2), 439-457.

  3. Bear, S., Rahman, N., & Post, C. (2010). The impact of board diversity and gender composition on corporate social responsibility and firm reputation. Journal of Business Ethics, 97(2), 207-221.

  4. Richard A. Bernardi, Susan M. Bosco, and Katie M. Vassill (2006) “Does Female Representation on Boards of Directors Associate With Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” List?”, Business & Society, Vol 45, Issue 2, pp. 235 – 248

  5. Michel Ferrary. Observatoire Skema de la féminisation des entreprises, 2019.

  6. La féminisation des instances de direction des entreprises passe par une évolution du cadre réglementaire. KPMG. https://home.kpmg/fr/fr/home/media/press-releases/2019/06/etude-femmes-gouvernance-feminisation-entreprises-evolution-reglementation.html 

  7. « Élisabeth Moreno : Les préjugés ont la vie dure », Le Figaro, 26 janvier 2021

  8. The impact of COVID-19 on women. (2020). United Nations entity for gender equality and the empowerment of women (UN Women). United Nations Secretariat. Available https://www. unwomen. org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2020/policy-brief-the-impact-of-COVID-19-on-women-en. pdf.

  9. Pour un quota de femmes dans les instances de direction des entreprises, rapport Terra Nova, Viviane de Beaufort et Martin Richer, 8 mars 2021

Additional resources

Loi quota Zimmermann-Copé ? L’heure du bilan Viviane de Beaufort, Journal Spécial des Sociétés 27/08/2018

Les Femmes en 2049, Viviane de Beaufort, interview de Dominique Nora, Nouvel Observateur, 13 avril 2021 

AFTER loi Copé/Zimmermann au-delà d’une Féminisation des Boards, l’impératif d’un modèle global égalitaire, Viviane de Beaufort, Journal Spécial des Sociétés - 10 mars 2021 – N°19

ESSEC Knowledge on X