WOMEN AT WORK
As an American expatriate living in Paris, this frankness concerning the sexes - men being men and women being women - truly delighted me for the first few months that I lived here, and part of it still does, after nearly two years living overseas. I have even learned to emulate their style and coquettishness, earning myself some nice, long gazes and a few "Vous Ítes charmante" remarks from the male passer-by.
Women are constantly subjected to remarks from their male colleagues. The notion of sexual harassment does not exist in this country. Yet, it seems that, as a professional, college-educated woman working in France, this sexual openness hides a deep-rooted problem - one that goes back perhaps thousands of years - and hinders the advancement of women, especially in the workplace.
"Women are constantly subjected to remarks from their male colleagues. The notion of sexual harassment does not exist in this country," says Felicia Sall Penel, an American expatriate working at TM International, an international recruitment agency. While this comment might come as a shock for most Anglophone women accustomed to no-nonsense intermingling in the workplace, Felicia chuckles knowingly and says "Women have just as much chance to succeed in France as in another Anglophone country. It's just a different set of rules."
Indeed, many French women feel slighted if they don't get a few words of flattery from their male colleagues and bosses at work.
"I have the impression that [American] women have lost their feminine powers," says Marlene Gasco, a French woman living in the United States with her husband, who was transferred to the US branch of his company last October. "Women operate differently from men as a general rule. We are more subtle and intuitive than men. Why should we try to compete on the same playing field when our defences are so totally different?"
The rules might be difficult to understand for many Anglophone women living and working in France. The social attitudes that reign here have little in common with those of any other culture, perhaps because they find themselves in the unique position of linking two very different socio-economic groups.
According to Catalyst, a U.S.-based research group, France falls between two classifications of European family values and working patterns: those of the Southern European and Northern European countries.
The Southern European countries tend to favour traditional family structures where the woman stays home to raise a family and the man goes off to work. Jobs in these countries are mainly unskilled, and unemployment rates are high, especially for women.
The Northern European countries tend to place less emphasis on their family lives, so family structures are more diverse. Unemployment rates are lower, white-collar jobs more abundant, and men and women split the job market almost equally (though men workers outnumber women in nearly every country by a few percent).
It's only fitting that France finds itself tucked neatly between these two social groups, since it divides the two regional groups physically. Living here, I can feel the heat of the near-constant - yet subtle - battle between traditional family values and every woman's undying desire to break through the glass ceiling once and for all.
"It's a perpetual challenge of juggling your personal life, family life and career," says Annie Asgard, a 32-year-old American living in France, who went through her own version of this battle after the birth of her daughter. After years of work, Annie finally decided that postponing her career to raise her daughter would not only benefit her family life, but the experience would enhance her professional skills when she returns to work - Annie is a teacher.
"My career is important to me, and I've done a lot to develop it over the years (post graduate work, training, etc.). Fortunately for me, I'm a teacher, and I believe that being a stay-at-home-mom will help me to be a better teacher once we, as a family, decide to have me go back to work. I suppose if I were in a career (like computers, banking, etc.) where being 'out of the loop' for a few years was a real deficit in finding/keeping a job, I'd be more concerned," she explains.
Annie is similar to most other American women concerned about their place in the job market. A survey of roughly 1,300 working mothers conducted by Parent Soup, one of America's largest parenting Web sites, revealed that two-thirds of American mothers leave their work for only 12 weeks or less for the birth of their child. One-third of those said they didn't even spend a full eight weeks away from work to care for their new-born. Many of these women actually choose to stay home as little as possible after the birth of their child, for fear of missing out on important decisions and events while out of the office.
"The simple fact of being a woman implies that you should be able to do everything at once," says my friend Marlene from her US home. "Like explaining to your boss that you need to push back a meeting because you're supposed to pick up your children from school at 3 o'clock. We ask a lot from women. It's a perpetual challenge of juggling your personal life, family life and career."
French women, no matter how high up the ladder they climb, will still stop in mid-ascent to take care of their families.
Success is a full-time job requiring personal sacrifice. And women - who are no different from their male counterparts - sometimes reap the bulk of their daily satisfaction knowing that their personal sacrifices for the corporate ladder game slide them ever so closer to the top. According to Polly Platt, author of "French or Foe?", Anglophone countries constitute a group of high-achievement cultures, while France and other Mediterranean countries make up a group of high-quality-of-life cultures. This might explain why Anglophone women - and perhaps especially the American ones - feel like they're treading water in France, despite long vacations and generous social rights.
Yet take these social benefits away and European women living in the United States suffer the reverse effect. "You have practically no time for yourself, no time for vacation and travelling," says Dorothee, a 26-year-old Belgium woman who is currently working as a product marketing specialist in California, "You live to work."
Although her career is important to her - and indeed she has climbed the corporate ladder since moving to the United States - she admits that professional success takes a back-seat to other, more personal objectives in her life.
Not quite ready to have children, but approaching that stage nonetheless, Dorothee says that "family out-ranks everything", and this is where she finds the United States to be a less-than-ideal country in which to live.
While many American couples juggle career and family (with the help of a booming day care industry, of course) and seem to do so without much complaint, Dorothee is already having a hard time envisioning such a harsh reality. "It starts right at the child's birth," she explains. "I have only 6 weeks in total for maternity leave here. In Belgium it's 12 weeks." In France, this number is even higher: 16 weeks of paid maternity leave; 26 weeks starting with the third child. In the United Kingdom it is 18 weeks.
According to a 1998 International Labour Organisation report, the United States has the worst record among all the industrialised nations when it comes to maternity leave. Only one US law permits time off for new mothers, the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, and it is anything but generous: Workers can take up to 12 weeks unpaid leave for a variety of medical conditions, one of which is childbirth. It is up to the individual companies to decide whether they want to offer additional benefits to their employees beyond this US law.
This could help explain why there is less discrimination in the United States regarding the employment of women: Having a baby (or two or three) will not affect their work, as it will almost surely do in France.
And despite Annie's observation that in France, women who are educated and career-minded choose to go back to work as soon as possible after having given birth, the figures show that French women are still very inclined to give up their careers for their families. An INSEE study showed that 42.4 percent of French women with 2 children under 6 work part-time while 48 percent of working women with three children work part-time. However, having children has no marked influence on their spouses' activity.
The study went on to show that, among all socio-economic groups in France, it is the female executive whose work-week decreases the most drastically with the arrival of a child. Perhaps, this is because these women can afford to make this sacrifice, but the fact remains that French women, no matter how high up the ladder they climb, will still stop in mid-ascent to take care of their families. Is this why fewer women are seen at the top of French companies and government positions?
Following the 1997 legislative elections in France, for instance, women made up less than 11 percent of Deputies, but only 5.9 percent of Senators. This level of representation is below that of all other European countries, except Greece. In the United States, for example, 13 percent of women took lower legislative positions and 15 percent higher legislative positions; in the United Kingdom, the figures were 17 percent and 18 percent, respectively.
In France's largest companies, women hold just 2 percent of the executive management positions. In the United States, women managed to climb a few more notches to hold 5.1 percent of these positions, and in the UK's top companies, the figure is at 3.6 percent.
Don't be fooled, however, French women are not living in the Dark Ages. Just like their American female counterparts, they have gone through a sexual revolution - a sort of French feminist movement that has changed the shape of their culture and economy. In fact, the female workforce in France is even higher than that of the United States: There are currently 47.6 percent of women working here, compared to a slightly lower 46.9 percent in the USA. Yet, while these figures suggest a strong feminist parallel between the American and French workforce, French advancements still lag behind those made by their cross-Atlantic counterparts: 45 percent of all employed French women work in fields labelled as 'traditionally' feminine (child care, secretarial work, nursing, etc.), as opposed to only 38 percent in the United States. Plus, a third of these French women in the labour force only work part-time, as opposed to a quarter of American women - 25 percent of which hold multiple part-time jobs.
A woman's "determination to work does not just seem out of place in France; it remains basically unwarranted or, more precisely, less warranted than that of men."
Alas, the well-defined roles of women and men, which makes them so sexually open and flirtatious by nature, has also held back the female populace when it comes to equality in the workplace. And even after having attained a decent job, French women still have to put up with a more subtle discrimination at work than do their American cohorts. As we have seen, sexual harassment, though illegal in France, is a kind of joke the French like to cite when making fun of their up-tight, cross-Atlantic neighbours.
"There's no doubt about it," says Fiona MacDonald, British expatriate and managing director of a French company. "Women aren't generally taken very seriously here. Before you have presented yourself on the telephone, people already assume you're a secretary. And strange though it may seem, other women are often as discriminating as men. When I send a letter, I put an initial instead of spelling out my first name, so most people assume I'm a man, which means my letter gets taken seriously. Having said that, I've now learnt how to play the game: business in France is a game of seduction - even between males - so if you're a woman, you should use everything you've got. Have you ever noticed how easy it is for a woman to cross a busy street in a short skirt? A man would get run down! Things have evolved a lot in France, but despite all that, the career gap caused by sex is still very omnipresent."
It comes as no surprise, then, to hear American (and Anglo-Saxon) expatriates complain about this discrimination and lack of advancement in France. And foreign women have two strikes against them: first, they are women; and second, those lucky enough to find a job in France usually end up in bilingual secretarial, waitressing or teaching positions. Finding it hard to break out of the pink-collar cycle, a professional Anglo-Saxon woman might compare her struggles in modern-day France to those fought in the United States 30 years ago.
"I think it's more difficult [to pursue a career] in France, but only for the rather obvious reasons of language barriers and cultural differences," says Miki Noguchi, a 21-year-old American working in Paris. Like many Anglophones in France, Miki found a job as an English teacher for a private company that lends itself to larger enterprises. Although she enjoys her work at the company owned by a French woman - who, according to Miki, ensures equal opportunities for both genders - she admits that the difference in social cues and cultural nuances can create problems.
TMI's Felicia notes that pursuing a career in France isn't all just language capabilities, however. The French rely heavily on diplomas and certificates to make their hiring decisions. If you don't have a certain French diploma, it's going to make it that much harder to get the job - even if you held that same job back home for several years.
"I think that the chances for a woman to climb the corporate ladder in the United States are better [than in France] because Americans live in a world based on merits and not so much on diplomas, sex, race, etc. There are not as many discriminatory elements, and that's the part of America that seduced me," my friend Marlene says. "Sometimes I have the impression that, in France, the question of sex plays too much of a role on your merits, and that's a shame. Things have evolved a lot in France, but despite all that, the career gap caused by sex is still very omnipresent."
"But if you have good language skills and the right diploma, there is no reason why you can't be just as successful in France as you can be in any Anglophone country," Felicia reassures us.
True, but Anglophone women who are already college-educated in their countries of origin, and who don't necessarily have the time to seek out a French degree to attain the same position they had back home, fall into the pink-collar trap. It is these women who suffer the most.
According to a 1997 article in Le Monde Diplomatique, a woman's "determination to work does not just seem out of place, it remains basically unwarranted or, more precisely, less warranted than that of men." The article's author, Margaret Maruani, goes on to say that women "have remained on the labour market, but at a high price: the employment crisis has severely affected their working conditions. And even if they do well in their jobs, they are under constant threat of unemployment and the stigma of inequality."
Her research supports this theory by showing that women have a tougher time finding a job in their youth (32 percent of women under 25 are unemployed in France, compared with only 22 percent of men), thus limiting their opportunities to gain career experience. When held back like this, women are forced to enter the labour market either later or in lower positions, hindering their chances for success.
Women in France suffer from the after-effects of this situation later on in life as well, not only from a lack of professional opportunities, but also due to the unemployment breakdown by socio-professional groups. Only 5 percent of professional and executive women are unemployed (which is not bad, if you can manage to get there); 16 percent of white-collar women (where the typical Anglophone expatriate finds herself) are unemployed; and a whopping 21 percent of manual women workers are unemployed.
With women being pushed into lower positions from the beginning - perhaps because, in France, their quest for jobs is still considered "incidental" as opposed to "necessary", whereas for men, it is the direct opposite - their chances for employment decreases the further down the professional ladder they find themselves.
But is career all there is to life? Are the serious, career-oriented women executives who race up the corporate ladder really more equal to men than their flirtatious, family-oriented French counterparts?
In trading in her overall quality of life for quality of productiveness, the work-driven Anglophone woman might have also sacrificed many of her fundamental rights: the chance to witness the earliest moments of her child's life; long and leisurely vacations to pursue other hobbies; less stress and more pleasure in daily life.
Yet neither culture, Anglophone nor Francophone, can claim superiority over the other - just as neither man nor woman can make such a claim - each one has its charm, its power and its beauty. When it comes down to it, you just have to make choices in your life that will support your lifestyle. Fortunately for those among us brave enough to explore other cultures, choosing the proper country goes along with it.