Gender Equality in Governance: “Passing This Law Has Been a Battle”


Marie-Jo Zimmermann, Representive for the Moselle department in the French National Assembly and co-author of the Copé-Zimmermann law on equal access for women to the boards of directors of large companies, was invited by EM Strasbourg to give a presentation on the creation and spirit of this bill which comes into full force this year. Interview.


EM Strasbourg: In 2017, your law comes into force. Companies that are subject to this are required to meet the target of women making up 40% on their Boards of Directors. What is the aim of this law?

Marie-Jo Zimmermann: I wanted the issue of women's representation in positions of governance to move from indifference to awareness. We’ve achieved that objective. We had drafted the text so that it would not be too harsh for companies, with an initial threshold of 20% women on the Boards of Directors and Supervisory Boards to be reached between 2011 and 2014. The companies managed to do this quite easily. But to reach 40%, more decisive decisions need to be taken, such as explaining to a male director at the end of his term of office that he is going to be replaced by a woman. This is where you get deeper into the system. It is now 2017 and any companies affected who do not comply with the law risk sanctions.


EM Strasbourg: Did you see legislation as the only way to correct injustice?

Marie-Jo Zimmermann: Passing this law was a battle fought from 2004 to 2011. The first challenge was to get it through my caucus.  Then I had to demonstrate the feasibility of the project by identifying a 'pool' of women ready to take up such positions. The example of Norway, which legislated on this subject before France, enabled me to move forward. The Norwegian minister who drafted the law said the following to me: “The Board of Directors is the beating heart of a company. We cannot accept that there is no gender balance in governance. ” By setting the threshold at 40%, we are not only strengthening this gender balance but also, through a domino effect, allowing women to rise to the top of management and break through the glass ceiling.


EM Strasbourg: What response would you give to company directors who say they have difficulty finding women to achieve this rate?

Marie-Jo Zimmermann: First of all, this 40% rate gives flexibility. 50-50 would have been too rigid. Secondly, this is an argument that I have heard for decades in politics. But do we ever question men’s competence? Never! A man is coopted to a Board of Directors. Why not a woman? Finally, in wanting to bring women into the Board of Directors, the question of training directors then arose. We simply didn't ask ourselves that until now, for men.


EM Strasbourg: Is This a Form of Sexism?

Marie-Jo Zimmermann: That’s a good question. This Norwegian minister explained that “a man knows that he will be an administrator, a woman will have to be trained and fight to become one”. I wanted to put an end to that state of affairs. The question of competence is self-evident: look at the results in the grandes écoles. Very often women come out among the best. It is unacceptable that they are not then on the board of directors fifteen years later. It is said that there is a shortage of 138 women in the Boards of Directors of CAC40 and SBF120 companies. If we can't find 138 women with very high potential in France, what conclusion should we, the world's fifth largest economy, draw from this?


EM Strasbourg: Many women have made the choice to set up their own business. What lessons can be learned from this dynamic that comes from the ground?

Marie-Jo Zimmermann: Very often, when women cannot rise to the top in businesses, they create. Female entrepreneurship is something extraordinary in that it reveals the potential of skills. Today, women's networks are exploding and show that women are indeed present. So, when I see this figure of 138, I just smile. There they are, the 138 women! You just have to make the effort to open the door for them. Headhunters need to be a little less misogynistic.

If the issue of corporate governance is the favorite topic of Patrice Charlier, Associate Professor and Head of the Governance and Business Transfer Chair at EM Strasbourg, the more specific issue of balanced representation between women and men on boards of directors is Sébastien Point’s area of expertise. As a full professor and research lecturer at EM Strasbourg, he has been working on this issue for many years. He was appointed to the Upper Council for Gender Equality (HCEfh), and was chosen to co-edit the interim evaluation report on the application of the laws of January 27, 2011 (known as the Copé-Zimmermann law) and of March 12 2012 (known as the Sauvadet law). From his research and his role as an editor, he draws an informed view of how far we have come, and the obstacles to and benefits of women on boards of directors. “The issue of parity has enabled companies to rethink and better structure their governance, to focus on training directors ,” explains Sébastien Point. This law, even if it is only aimed at a limited marginal group of companies, has the merit of helping to reduce gender inequalities.


Key Figures:
More than 900 companies affected by the law, including 520 listed on the stock exchange
1,265 professional posts to be filled by women, in order to achieve full parity
Women made up 34% on average of Boards of Directors in 2015

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