A woman in France
What does it mean to be a woman in France? It’s a huge question, and in attempting to answer it, much depends on looking at women’s conditions in the working world. Inequalities in salary persist, and women hold a majority in contingent work as well.
Reported by Cécile Mathy
In the professional world, women are far from being equal to men. The monthly salary gap between the two sexes amounts to 25%. Hamida Ben Sadia is a member of the League of Human Rights.
“Eighty per cent of contingent work is work done by women, which already proves that there’s a real problem because that equates to very low wages, difficulty in finding child care, and really precarious living conditions. The second problem, therefore, is the inequalities in salary. Today, in the same job with the same education, women in France are still earning less than men, and that, too, is completely outrageous. Several laws have been voted on, but currently these laws are not being implemented, so we’re wondering what we must do. Perhaps fines could solve the problem. Regardless, when you see the fines already being paid by political parties with unequal representation, well, I imagine that for large companies it won’t be a big problem still to pay women less and to pay a flat fine for the unequal treatment.”
Currently, inequalities in salary are considered discrimination. In theory, they are punishable by three years in prison and a fine of 4,500 euros, but in fact, very few women bring cases to court. Five million workers today in France are part-time and among them 82% are women, subjected to part-time work contracts. This is the case, for example, with cashiers in large department stores. Isabelle, who’s 42, is a journalist who worked half-time for 10 years, but it was her choice, a choice not always easy to accept because half of part-time wage earners make less than 760 euros a month.
“As it is with all choices, there are both good and bad sides. So, that means leaving behind some professional ambitions, but you can’t have your cake and it eat, too, so you have to accept it. And then, people’s opinions change, and in fact, that’s fairly difficult when you begin part-time. It’s that, as a woman, you say to yourself, ‘Being a mother won’t change anything,’ and even if it doesn’t change anything for us, the truth is, people’s opinions of us change because as a mother, you’re most likely not as available. It’s these assumptions that still remain. For instance, there was this job that I was aiming for, that I felt I was made for. I was coming back from maternity leave, and I didn’t get it. They can always give you the reasons they want, but anyhow, I felt a bit like it was due to my status as a mother, and I was fortunate enough to be on a team where it was going well, which unfortunately is not always the case. The challenge is that when you’re a working woman and a mother of a family, you’re wearing a lot of hats, so that you finish one job and then start another. So, it’s a choice you make to say, ‘Okay, I’m going to take some time for my personal life. My kids are growing up quickly, and I don’t want to miss these moments.’ For me, what I would dread would be to hear my kids say to me one day: ‘Anyhow, you were never there. We could never talk to you.'”
There are very few women in management positions. Within the companies which make up the CAC 40, the 40 largest French stocks listed on the stock exchange, women represent only 7% of the workforce. But the picture is not entirely bleak. Some women are succeeding and even more so in professions held by men. Today, 25% of engineers are women. Dominique Verrien is among them. She started a business in the construction industry.
“I actually didn’t meet with any difficulties, which is the exception that proves the rule, in fact. I would often come across customers who were rather macho, but well, I don’t know, it went okay, and then later on, it was the opposite. They would entrust me with more things. What’s more is that I was still young when I first opened up my office at the age of 28, and so, they had the impression that they were doing something to help me. Later on, a relationship of trust was established. After that, well, the question of competence was no longer there, and the fact that I was a woman was completely erased. Starting off, I was boxed in because I began with Colas, a civil engineering company, and I had asked to go to the south of France, and in that region, not only did they not want to hire me, but they didn’t even want to meet me under the pretext that they didn’t want to hire a woman. I also met on a site, there it was a construction site, and on construction sites there’s often an apprentice who is one of the workers but who’s devoted to the cooking, and who cooks for everyone at noon, and the apprentice didn’t want to cook for me because I was a woman, and he didn’t want to cook for a woman. With big companies, things have evolved rather nicely, but with small and mid-sized companies, it’s more difficult because there’s a working protocol which demands that you be present, and it’s true that the constraints associated with having children and the constraints associated with maternity leave, even if you prepare well for it, are often black marks on a woman’s career. It’s perhaps at the school level where we’re not doing enough to break these notions. When you’re still seeing children’s books where the little girl is helping mom in the kitchen, and the little boy is helping dad in the garage, I think that most definitely contributes to the fact that we’re preparing for these roles later on.” Just recently in Burgundy, a study was conducted in about twenty middle and high schools in the area. Sixteen hundred students have already been questioned about their feelings towards equality between men and women. The report is not too good. Christine Burtin-Lauthe is coordinating the research. Students are influenced by the media, and women are not necessarily well represented.
“The image is always that of a woman being regarded as an object. They’re even describing women as “a piece of meat” and using terms such as “slut” and “bitch”. That, that makes us question, that should make us think, and that should cause us to ask questions regarding this equality that we’re trying to achieve. It’s an unfinished revolution. If we thought that in the 70s we were going to change the world and change relations between men and women, today the results show that there is still a lot to do, and that sometimes there is even a regression. So, the boys revert back to this image of the macho man who brings home the bacon, as they say, and who is the master, and then the young girls find themselves in a position of submission and thus dependence, when they absolutely could go for more important jobs in our society which are open to them. The majority of women are found in ten sectors out of more than 80. This means that because they’re in ten sectors which are mainly part of the service sector, they’re competing with each other, while if they were to broaden their horizons, and if we offered them also the opportunity and the resources to go into other sectors, which are wide open to them, they wouldn’t need to be labourers. There are a lot of other sectors, information technology, for example, where we don’t find women, and which would give them the opportunity to earn a good salary. A salary which would give them independence, which would give them a real place in society and which would allow them the choice to stay, to have children, and to continue working.”
All of this plays out in the home. The dividing up of duties and household chores says a lot about equality among men and women.
“Dividing up chores between men and women in the domestic realm has advanced only a tiny, tiny, tiny bit. Men between the ages of 15-20 have only increased their time spent on daily household chores by eight minutes, whereas women have only gained one extra minute in terms of time for themselves.”
The social pressure is strong, as testifies Sandrine, a receptionist.
“It’s as if we have to go back into a pre-defined role. For example, from 30 on, it’s children, marriage. You have to fit into this framework, so it’s not always easy. In my circle, people will say to me, “Oh, you’re 30 and still not married!” It’s not always easy to accept because, okay, I’m free, so we can do what we want to do. I’d say that there’s no obligation. It’s not because you reach a certain age that you have to fit into a set role.”
A study conducted with executives, men this time, from 30-40 years old, showed nonetheless a change in mindsets and behaviours. “Paternity has shifted” according to the firm Equilibre, which did the report. Men are investing more and more into overall parental responsibilities and adjust their work schedules to keep the children, for example. A reality for salaried employees in large companies, but in small companies the traditional roles held by the two sexes die hard.
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