IN THE BOARDROOM
Volume 1: The Use of
Different Quota Regulations
Gender Diversity on French Boards:
Example of a Success from a Hard Law
Emmanuel Zenou, Isabelle Allemand,
and Bénédicte Brullebaut
In spite of recommendations given by governance codes, in France the
proportion of women on boards and in top management more generally
has remained low for decades. To bring about change, following the
examples of Norway in 2003 and Spain in 2007, France adopted gender
quotas on boards in 2011. The Copé Zimmermann law voted on and
implemented in January 2011 requires listed companies and non-listed
companies with revenues or total of assets over 50 million euros or
employing at least 500 persons for three consecutive years, to reach a
40% gender balance on boards by 2017, with an intermediary level of
20% in 2014. Following its announcement in 2010, France’s average
proportion of female directors on boards of CAC40 companies increased
from 10% to 15.4% during 2010 (AFEP-MEDEF 2010). After the
E. Zenou (*)•I. Allemand •B. Brullebaut
Burgundy School of Business, Dijon, France
103©The Author(s) 2017
C. Seierstad et al. (eds.), Gender Diversity in the Boardroom,
General Assemblies of 2016, the 140 biggest listed companies (those with
a capitalisation of more than 1 billion euros) have 36.7% of women on
their board (Baromètre de la Diversité).
This chapter will begin by offering a general background of France’s
economic and political system around this law, as well as a description of
the corporate governance structure in French companies. A discussion of
the national policy, as well as ﬁgures on women representation, are given
in a second section. The third section gives critical reﬂections on the case
and the fourth section provides a short reﬂection from a French practi-
tioner, female director in several French listed companies.
General Background of the Country
According to French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies
(INSEE) in 2015, the population of France was 64.4 million inhabitants
on a landmass of 552,000 km
. France is the fourth most populous
country in Europe, behind Russia, the United Kingdom and Germany.
It is also the third-largest country, after Russia and Ukraine. In addition,
France is one of the founding members of the European Union.
Characteristics of the Economic System
Labor Market and the Integration of Women in France
Women represent about 51% (INSEE 2016) of the population of France.
The latest comparative statistics from Eurostat (European Parliament
2015) show that women have a higher level of education than men
(32.8% are educated to graduate level as against 28%; the gap was similar
in 2008: 26.7% compared with 22.8%) and a lower unemployment rate
(9.6% versus 10.2%). Despite these good ﬁgures and a positive trend
since 2008, inequalities remain in many aspects: in employment rate,
part-time work, remuneration, segregation in occupation and also in the
presence of women in Parliaments and senior ministers (see Table 5.1).
The Global Gender Gap report 2016, published by the World Economic
104 E. Zenou et al.
Forum, ranks France in the 17th position over the 144 surveyed coun-
tries, with a 0.755 parity score.
France relies on several legislative texts and policy instruments to
implement its gender equality policies in various domains. As underlined
by a recent study carried out for the European Parliament (2015), gender
equality policies in France have been developed since the 1970s and today
they represent a consistent and comprehensive legal framework covering
almost several domains of social, political and economic life. France has a
long-standing tradition of legislating in favour of gender equality in the
domain of employment and professional life, with the ﬁrst legislation
dating from 1972 and the establishment of no less than 12 laws between
1972 and 2014.
Table 5.1 Statistics about women and men, in France and in European Union
Life expectancy in 2015
85.1 years 79 years
Unemployment rate of women or men over
15 years old in 2014
Employment rate for women or men aged
20–64 in 2015
64.30% 66.20% 75.60%
Full time equivalent employment rate among
women or men aged 20–64 in 2014
54.50% 59.10% 71.90%
Gender pay gap in 2013
Gender segregation in occupation, in 2014
Part of women or men in the single/lower
houses of the national/federal parliaments in
29% 26% 74%
Part of women or men among senior ministers
in national/federal governments in 2015
28% 48% 52%
Part of women or men aged from 15 to
28.40% 32.80% 28%
Report on Equality between women and men 2015 and Gender Equality Report:
Key ﬁndings, European Commission 2015
5 Gender Diversity on French Boards: Example of a Success from a... 105
More recently, the main legislative initiatives that appeared where on
the areas of, on the one hand, parity in politics and other decision-making
bodies, including a series of laws strengthening gender electoral quota
schemes which were adopted between 1999 and 2014. On the other
hand, gender-based violence with several important laws on sexual harass-
ment adopted in 2002, 2003 and 2012, and on sexual exploitation and
domestic violence between 2005 and 2010. To the contrary, media and
gender stereotypes have not yet been the target of similar legislative efforts,
so constitute an emerging domain.
The most important and recent development in gender equality policy
is probably the adoption of the “Law on Real Gender Equality”in 2014,
which promotes an “integrated and transversal approach to gender equal-
ity”. Instead of previous gender equality legislation that had been passed
with speciﬁc laws for each policy domain, the 2014 Law aims at embrac-
ing all spheres of social life and various ﬁelds of gender equality policy
simultaneously, with 77 dispositions.
Other Characteristics of the Economic System
The economic system in France has several distinct characteristics. First,
the government had a long-standing inﬂuence on ﬁrms, as the main
shareholder of many of the biggest companies. Even if this inﬂuence has
been decreasing since 1987, with several waves of privatisation, during
which big companies and ﬁnancial companies took the place of the
government, followed by foreign investors, it is still consistent today
(Vie Publique 2016). Second France is well known for its elitist world
based on prestigious education (Ecole Nationale de l’Administration,
engineer’s schools: Mines, Ponts, Centrale, ENSAE, Télécoms..., and
business schools: HEC, ESSEC, ESCP and INSEAD) (Burt et al. 2000).
People graduated from these schools run the biggest French ﬁrms and
accumulate directorships in large public and private ﬁrms (Bertrand et al.
2004; Zenou et al. 2012). Most of them had worked in ministries for
several years. And, thirdly, France is characterised by the predominance of
family-owned companies, even among the 650 publicly listed companies:
70% of them are family ﬁrms (Sraer and Thesmar 2007).
106 E. Zenou et al.
France is facing a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, in view of the
increasing proportion of foreign investors in French companies (in 2014
46.7% of CAC40 ﬁrms are owned by foreign investors) (Banque de
France 2015), the country evolves towards Anglo-Saxon governance,
with sanctions decided by the market. Since no gender quotas for boards
haves been voted for in the USA or the UK, this may not be in favour of
more women on French boards. On the other side, the heavy role played
by stakeholders (inﬂuence of unions and committees, role played by
employees in new regulations (NRE Law), awareness of sustainable devel-
opment, increase of corporate social responsibility) has a strong inﬂuence
on ﬁrms’governance and brings speciﬁc constraints to managers, creating
other disciplinary mechanisms. This second point probably makes
women’s access to boards easier since CSR promotes fairness and equality
among people, including for gender criteria.
The French Corporate Governance System
French ﬁrms can choose between two forms of governance: a two-tier
system with two separated actors—the executive board and the supervi-
sory board—or a one-tier system with a Chief Executive Ofﬁcer (CEO)
and a board of directors, in which the CEO and the chair might be the
same person. This last situation is common in France: 65% of ﬁrms have a
one-tier system. The Copé Zimmermann law applies to both systems. For
the two-tier system, it is the supervisory board that has to comply with the
Copé Zimmermann law.
The Dominant System Is a One-Tier System: A CEO
with a Board
Article L225-17 of the French Commercial Code provides that the board
of directors must be made up of a minimum of three members and a
maximum of 18, excluding all the directors representing the employees.
In France, two types of directors elected by the employees coexist, both
have the right to vote. First, according to the French law voted in on
5 Gender Diversity on French Boards: Example of a Success from a... 107
14 June 2013 (Law on Securing Employment no. 2013-504), in ﬁrms
with more than 5000 employees in France or 10,000 in the world, two
board members representing the employees have to be elected or
appointed if the boardroom is over 12 members, and one otherwise.
These board members are not taken into account for the ratio of 40%
women on boards introduced by the Copé Zimmerman law. Secondly, if
the employee shareholders represent more than 3% of the share capital of
the ﬁrm, they have to elect a board member among them according
Article 225-23 of the French Commercial Code. This member represents
the employee shareholders but he is not an employee representative. This
board member is taken into account for the ratio of 40%.
Board members are elected by the shareholders during the general
meeting, for a period laid down in the statutes, of at least two years and
not exceeding six years. They can be re-elected and can be dismissed
preterm by shareholders, during any ordinary shareholders’meeting. The
chairperson is chosen among board members, without any speciﬁc
requirements, and this nomination is submitted to the vote of share-
holders during general meeting.
The organisation of boardrooms usually consists of committees, such as
audit committee, nomination committee or any other committee that
may be useful or considered relevant. In 2008, article L. 823-19 of the
Commercial Code made it mandatory to establish, in entities whose
securities are listed on a regulated market, an audit committee: this
committee, acting exclusively under the joint responsibility of the mem-
bers of the board or the supervisory board, has to monitor issues relating
to the preparation or review of accounting and ﬁnancial information. The
French legislation does not require the setting up of other committees.
The board of directors is involved in the deﬁnition of the strategy and
monitors its implementation. It has the broadest powers to act in any
circumstances in the ﬁrm’s name and has to monitor and supervise the
CEO’s actions/decisions. The number of meetings to be held by the
board of directors is not governed by any regulations.
The CEO is chosen by the board members. He/she may or may not be a
member of the board—and may indeed be the chairman. The duration of
the term is deﬁned in the statutes of the ﬁrm and it is possible to be
re-elected. The CEO can be dismissed at any time by the board of
directors. The CEO has the widest powers to act in all circumstances in
108 E. Zenou et al.
the name of the company, within the limits of the corporate purpose or
subject to the power that the law expressly give to the general meeting or to
the board. He/she shall represent the company with regard to third parties.
The Two-Tier System, with a Supervisory Board
and an Executive Board
In the one-tier system the rules relating to the supervisory board are often
the same as the rules for the board of directors. Nevertheless, some
differences exist. Members of the supervisory and the executive board
cannot be the same and each organ has a chair, to be appointed by the
members of each board. The main duty of the supervisory board is to
monitor and supervise the executive board. The main difference with the
board of directors is that the supervisory board is not involved in the
deﬁnition of the strategy. A minimum of four meetings per year is set in
the law—which recommends a total of eight should be held.
The supervisory board appoints the executive board, with at least two
and no more than ﬁve members. In the law, the duration of the term of
ofﬁce is four years, but the statute of the ﬁrm can deﬁne a ny duration
between two and six years. The executive board member can be dismissed
by the shareholders or by the supervisory board if mentioned in the
statutes. A chair is elected among the members of the executive board.
With the exception of powers expressly assigned to general meetings of
shareholders and to the supervisory board, the executive board is vested
with the more comprehensive power to act in all circumstances in the
name of the Company. Even though women have entered boards (see
Fig. 5.1), few of them are chairwomen. In 2014, only 6% of board chairs
were held by women in the largest French companies (European Com-
Board nominations are less professionalised than is the case in Anglo-
Saxon countries. Indeed, the inﬂuence of networks is very strong (Zenou
5 Gender Diversity on French Boards: Example of a Success from a... 109
et al. 2012), as French directors have strong interlocking links between
boards (Yeo et al. 2003), and a strong inﬂuence of elites and prestige
schools (Kadushin 1995; Allemand and Schatt 2010), in the explanation
and origin of board membership. As Burt et al. (2000) highlight, the usual
image of French business is the one of dense elite networks organised
around several state-owned ﬁrms, and graduation from the most presti-
gious schools (Polytechnique, Ponts, Mines, Centrale, Telecoms,
ENSAE, Ecole Nationale de l’Administration (ENA), or HEC are
among the most famous ones). Kadushin (1995) has analysed the cohe-
sion of the French ﬁnancial elite, showing that the main predictor of a
friendship between two people from this elite is that both had graduated
from ENA. Pichard-Stamford (2000) notices that French corporate gov-
ernance is characterised by a high density of interlocking ties between
boards, higher, in particular, than occurs in its European neighbours such
as Germany and the UK. Even if French Corporate Governance Codes
such as the Viénot Report (1999) and the Bouton Report (2002) advocated
for signiﬁcant improvements with regard to board nominations, practices
change relatively slowly. In companies, internal rules for board selection
2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
Women on boards in France
CAC40 Big Caps Middle Caps
Fig. 5.1 Evolution of women representation on boards in CAC40, big caps and
middle caps, from 2011 to 2016
110 E. Zenou et al.
Table 5.2 Summary comparison of both board systems
One-tier system Two-tier system
CEO (one person) Management/executive board
He can be a board member or
not, and even the chairman of
the board of directors
None of the members can be a
member of the supervisory
Chairman Not relevant A chairman is elected among
the management board—No
Appointment He is chosen by the board
members and can be
dismissed at any time
Each member is appointed by
the supervisory board
Tenure In the statutes 4 years according the law or
2–6 years in the statutes
Termination The CEO can be dismissed at any
time by the board of directors
Each member can be dismissed
by the shareholders or by the
supervisory board if written
in the statutes
Role/mission The CEO is vested with the more
comprehensive power to act
in all circumstances in the
name of the company (article
L 225-56-1 al. 1 Code de
The executive board is vested
with the more comprehen-
sive power to act in all cir-
cumstances in the name of
Board of directors Supervisory board
Members 3–18 members 3–18 members
(shareholder or not) (deliber-
(shareholder or not) (advisory
Chairman A chairman is chosen among
the board members—No spe-
A chairman is elected among
the supervisory board—No
Tenure Tenure: 2–6 years, written in
Tenure: written in the statutes,
with a maximum of 6 years
Elected by Each member is elected by the
Each member is elected by the
Re election Yes, by the shareholders Yes, by the shareholders
Termination Each member can be dismissed
by the shareholders
Each member can be dismissed
by the shareholders
5 Gender Diversity on French Boards: Example of a Success from a... 111
are homogeneous and specify, as previously explained, that the general
meeting of shareholders appoints the directors (either in a supervisory
board or board of directors), possibly on a proposal from the nominating
committee. In turn, when there is a nominating committee, the latter is
proposed by the board. The same administrators can be presidents in
other ﬁrms, thus the dense network of board interlocks plays a signiﬁcant
role in board nomination (Table 5.2).
National Public Policy Regarding Women
Corporate Governance Codes
Governance codes have been developed through a private initiative
supported by the Association Française des Entreprises Privées (AFEP)
Table 5.2 (continued)
One-tier system Two-tier system
Role/mission The board in involved in the
deﬁnition of the strategy and ,
monitors its implementation
The supervisory board is not
involved in the deﬁnition of
The board has the broadest
power to act in the Firm’s
The board has to monitor and
supervise the CEO’s actions/
He has to monitor and super-
vise the management board
Meetings No regulation for the number
of meeting: a minimum of
eight are recommended by
the main governance code
At least four meeting per year
regarding the commercial
code (Article L225-68 )
Women/men At least, 40% of each gender At least, 40% of each gender
Employees representative are
not taken into account for the
ratio of 40%
Employees representative are
not taken into account for
the ratio of 40%
Committees An audit committee is compul-
sory for the listed companies
An audit committee is compul-
sory for the listed companies
112 E. Zenou et al.
and by the Mouvement des Entreprises de France (MEDEF)—the French
equivalent of the Confederation of British Industry for UK. MEDEF has
700,000 ﬁrms that are members. Adhering companies decided to deﬁne
more precisely many good principles of governance, to live up to public
and investors’expectations. The ﬁrst recommendations in governance
appeared in 1995 with the Viénot I report, and they have been completed
in the following years (the Viénot II report in 1999; the Bouton report in
2002; and the recommendations AFEP-MEDEF in 2007 and 2008), but
without mentioning the representation of women and men in board-
rooms or promoting diversity. The ﬁrst recommendations appear in 2010,
in the code AFEP MEDEF,
and indicates that “each board must consider
the expected balance of its composition [...], in particular in the repre-
sentation between women and men [...]. To reach this balance, the goal
is for each board to reach and maintain at least 20% of women within
three years and at least 40% of women within six years”.
Since the recommendations suggesting an increase in the number of
women on the board of directors in the governance code are relatively
recent, the percentage of women remained low and the situation did not
change for several years. France was one of the bad students of Europe,
with only 11.95% of women in the boards of big ﬁrms (European PWN
2010). This ﬁgure leaves the country well behind leading countries such
as Norway (37.9%), Sweden (27%) and Finland (20%) (European PWN
The French government has been promoting actions for professional
equality for some years. The ﬁrst law requiring equality between men and
women at work was adopted in 1983 (Roudy Law) and this law was
reinforced in 2001 with the law Génisson. These laws promote equal
access to work (appointment, training, career advancement, work condi-
tions and wages) for men and women, but nothing was said concerning
boards or managing bodies.
However, the feminisation of management and governance bodies was
still considered as particularly low by many business actors and by society.
5 Gender Diversity on French Boards: Example of a Success from a... 113
In order to enhance the government actions promoting professional
equality among leaders, several deputies, led by Marie-Jo Zimmermann,
the president of the Gender Equality Commission at French National
Assembly, proposed a draft of law on gender equality on boards in
December 2009, requiring 50% of women on boards ﬁve years later.
The National Assembly modiﬁed the rate to 40% and the maturity to six
years. This law was adopted and implemented in 2011. Marie-Jo Zim-
mermann had already proposed a similar legal text in 2006 that was
refused by the Institutional Council.
This law, called Copé Zimmermann, applies to all listed companies and
non-listed companies with revenues or total assets over 50 million euros,
or employing at least 500 persons for three consecutive years. It requires
these companies to reach at least 40% of women in their board of
directors by 2017, with a ﬁrst step of 20% by 2014. However, the law
only applies to non-executive directorship positions, and while the female
proportion of non-executive directors in France is well above the EU-28
average, the proportion of female executive directors is below the EU-28
average (European Women’s Lobby 2014).
In case of non-compliance with the law, the appointments of directors
shall be considered as null and void. Moreover, failure to comply with the
law will lead to the non-payment of the board attendance fees to the board
Diversity Figures Before and After the Regulation
Evolution of Board Gender Diversity in the Biggest French
Companies: The CAC40
Most studies focus on the largest listed companies and, in particular, the
CAC40 companies (40 highest market capitalisations). The study from
the Ministère des Familles, de l’Enfance et des Droits des Femmes
indicates (2010, p. 23) that the percentage of female board members in
these companies increased from 8% in 2006, and 10.5% in 2009 to
15.3% in 2010. According to the European Commission, the represen-
tation of female directors in CAC40 companies reached 34.1% in 2015,
114 E. Zenou et al.
placing France third in Europe in terms of the proportion of women on
boards of the biggest listed ﬁrms in 2015, after Iceland (OMX10) and
Listed Companies and Diversity
The CAC40 is not representative of all French ﬁrms. Since the Copé
Zimmermann law also applies to smaller ﬁrms (the criteria are more than
50 million euros of assets or more than 500 employees), it seems inter-
esting to study a larger sample of ﬁrms. Statistics from the Baromètre de la
Diversité dans les Conseils d’Administration (Burgundy School of Busi-
ness 2016) are available on Big Caps (those with more than 1 billion euros
of capitalisation) and Middle Caps (capitalisation of between 150 million
and 1 billion euros) since 2011. This accounts for around 250 companies.
As shown in Fig. 5.1, the proportion of women on board has doubled
in the largest French companies between 2011, the year in which the
Copé Zimmermann law was passed, and 2016. In middle caps, even if the
level of gender diversity is lower, it has also doubled since 2011 and
reached 30.4% in 2016. During all the period, we see a relationship
between the size of the company and the representation of women on
boards. Biggest ﬁrms are more exposed to the pressure of media, which
leads them to comply with societal standards (Allemand et al. 2016).
The educational and the professional backgrounds of new women
directors are similar to men’s ones in the big caps (Allemand and
Brullebaut 2014). No signiﬁcant differences can be observed among the
new appointees in terms of age, education (number of years of studies,
alumni of elitist schools) and several kinds of experiences (experience as
CEO, international experience). Differences consist in nationality (more
women directors are foreigners) and independence (women are more
independent than men in percentage).
5 Gender Diversity on French Boards: Example of a Success from a... 115
Enabling and Hindering Forces
For private companies, the recommendations published by employers’
networks (AFEP MEDEF Code) before the publication of the law were a
main driver for pushing the issue of gender diversity on boards. In this
respect, these recommendations pushed for gender diversity on boards
more signiﬁcantly than unions or syndicates, which were more focused on
securing gender equality in wages than on their representation in decision-
making bodies. Unions themselves show a very low representation of
women in their executive boards (Damge 2015).
In the case of France, the increase of female representation was signif-
icantly pushed by a hard law, so this implementation did not have to face
real opponents. Of course, as many other European countries French
boardrooms were dominated by “old boys’network”usually described,
which means that they traditionally were choosing male administrators as
a usual norm, even though they were not declared opponent to this law.
French companies had to comply with the law, even though some
criticisms had been made on the legitimacy of quotas (as outlined in the
next section). The existence of a strong compulsory regulation cancelled
any strong and structured hindering forces or groups that could be
opponents to the increase of female representation on boards. In the
public sector, several agencies and institutions controlled and published
annual reports on the proportion of women on boards of public compa-
nies, and companies in which the state participates. They also checked for
classical circumvention strategies such as lowering the number of board
members to increase statistically the proportion of women (Damge 2015).
As regards private companies, the application of these standards about
female representation on boards was controlled by private structures, such
as consulting companies or rating agencies, or by order of the government.
This law pushed companies to renew their board composition, and
select new proﬁles, which needed also to be able to detect women proﬁles
and make them visible. This is why the development of many women
networks was also a useful factor to accompany the law and help its
implementation. Networks such as Fédération des Femmes
116 E. Zenou et al.
or Femmes Chefs d’Entreprise (http://www.fcefrance.com) helped
women to share experiences and visions about their role as board mem-
bers. Indeed, the law about gender diversity on boards needed also to
change the sources by which women proﬁles could be identiﬁed. The
traditional recruitment and inﬂuence networks were not entirely adequate
to deﬁne new proﬁles to select on boards, and those networks also
contributed to add more professionalisation and structure to proﬁles
speciﬁcations expected by companies. Public institutions and bodies also
encourage training approaches, and many training programmes emerged
in French ‘Grandes Ecoles’, universities or professional networks, such as
Women Be European Board Ready by ESSEC Business School, and
programmes proposed by the Institut Français des Administrateurs
(IFA—French Institute of Directors;http://www.ifa-asso.com). These
programmes are intended to help participants stay at the highest level of
skills in the exercise of their mandate. They include operational training
and experience sharing on best practices of governance, in particular in
complex and international environments. In this perspective, they had a
role in promoting the law and making it more operational for companies
and potential female administrators.
Critical Reﬂection on the Case
Statistics show that French ﬁrms have decided to enforce the law, and that
most of them are even ahead of the compulsory gender diversity schedule.
Big caps’response to the quota law was immediate and diversity increased
each year by ﬁve points since 2011. During the period 2011–2016, the
same proportion of male and female candidates has been appointed on
boards of largest companies (Burgundy School of Business 2016),
reﬂecting a signiﬁcant change about gender in hiring practices, which
were mostly directed towards men before the law. Other appointment
criteria did not change, as shown in Allemand and Brullebaut’s(2014)
study: selection is as rigorous for women than for men in terms of
education and experience.
However, some complaints exist from companies. Firstly, to reach the
high compulsory level of the law, companies give priority to women’s
5 Gender Diversity on French Boards: Example of a Success from a... 117
appointment (as previously stated, half of the new directors are women,
which was not the case previously: see Burgundy School of Business
(2016), for more ﬁgures), with two consequences. Some relevant male
directors are not renewed at the term of their ofﬁce, in order to make way
for women, and male candidates are far less likely to obtain a mandate,
whatever their skills and expertise are. Secondly, as expressed by Caroline
Weber (2012), the CEO of Middlenext—the independent French asso-
ciation representing listed SMEs and midcaps, the drawbacks of quota
laws are their inability to take into account ﬁrms’speciﬁcities. For
example, in some speciﬁc industries, other skills and competencies may
be more relevant than gender. In the automotive industry, for example,
engineers are required on boards and this criterion is stronger than gender
(a female engineer can be appointed but for her technical skills rather than
simply because she is a woman). For Caroline Weber, ﬁrms should be
differentiated by size or by types of shareholders when laws are decided in
order to adapt legal documents to their speciﬁcities, with achievable goals.
She states that big ﬁrms and small ﬁrms do not have the same governance
issues and constraints. Still, as expressed by Agnès Touraine, President of
IFA (French Institute of Directors): “Quotas are never a victory and
should not be the solution. However, they are the only option when
there are no signs of a willingness to change the current situation. Despite
our preference for “soft law,”we have to recognise that regulation can
speed up progress”(Deloitte 2015).
Opponents to quota laws argue that compulsory levels of women on
boards force companies to appoint directors based on their gender and not
on their skills and what they can bring to the board. Some studies indicate
that quota laws would lead to a reduction in the level of board human
capital (Ahern and Dittmar 2012). However, the comparative study of
Allemand et al. (2016) concerning France (quota law on women on
boards) and Canada (comply or explain concerning diversity) concludes
that hard laws lead to higher and quicker women representation on
boards, and that French ﬁrms manage to ﬁnd female candidates meeting
usual selection criteria (experience as CEO, experience of other boards,
international and ﬁnance experiences, and elitist education).
Thanks to the Copé Zimmermann law, by 2016 86% of French boards
have three or more female directors. According to Torchia et al. (2011),
118 E. Zenou et al.
using critical mass theory of Granovetter (1978), a minimum number of
women is necessary to be able to see gender diversity effects on the
organisation. This means that in future years, researchers will be able to
test more efﬁciently the relationship between board diversity and ﬁrm
performance, and more generally speaking, to study the inﬂuence of
women representation on boards (decision making, supervision, etc.).
Reﬂections of an Actor
Interview to Viviane Neiter, board member of ﬁve French listed compa-
nies (Iceram, Plant Advanced Technologies, Prodware, Spir, Vêt Affaires)
and member of Governance Professionals of Canada (GPC).
Gender diversity, generally thought of as “gender balance”between
male/female, has become an important topic on boards since 2010. Before
that, boards were “old boys clubs”and the matter was not really debated.
The promulgation of the Copé Zimmermann Act has been an opportu-
nity to lead the way into a new way of thinking. Of course, it caused some
initial trepidation, because it was left to “hard law”. Several professional
organisations, like MEDEF (The MEDEF “Mouvement des Entreprises
de France”is the French equivalent of the Confederation of British
Industry in UK—MEDEF has 700,000 ﬁrms that are members), should
have initially preferred “soft law”in the form of “best practices”,or“soft
law”. But the ﬁgures spoke for themselves: women found slow progress in
the increase of their peers on boards. It was true that very few women
reached the highest positions as executive heads of organisations. Even
today, progress in this direction remains relatively marginal in comparison
to the large number of qualiﬁed women in the labour market. Indeed, it
necessitated a real paradigm shift for the companies. Fortunately, the
acknowledgement and the lobbying of a long-term work and undertaking
have deeply changed the mindset, the attitude and the culture. They have
raised awareness among both companies and executives, too. Everyone
who is honest is aware of the invaluable contribution to debates of women
5 Gender Diversity on French Boards: Example of a Success from a... 119
whose life experience and meaningful inputs give them a different
I observe that women on boards offer complementary points of view
(not necessary approaches opposed to competing perspectives) on several
topics that prove worthy of their consideration. Take the example of
succession planning, mergers and acquisitions, human resources, sustain-
ability, long-term issues and challenges of organising, role of social medias
... They help deal with the global challenges facing us, such as tackling
climate change. So, every board member is enriched after having listened
to the different ideas. Women dare to ask questions about sensitive aspects
and that is very useful for decision-making. Nevertheless, the mix means a
constant exchange and the understanding of male codes. It takes much
time, but that is the solution to make our demands heard. Sure, only one
woman on board appears to have less direct inﬂuence over things. When
two or three women serve as board members it is easier to master male
codes; it’s a way to rise through the ranks. At a deeper level, it may be
necessary to transform masculine norms and practices that encourage old
men to ﬂout their responsibilities. Do not forget, one of the objectives of a
board is to ensure the long-term existence of the company and to create
value not only for shareholders, but also for stakeholders. So we can create
an ecosystem in favour of innovation.
Another point is that the greater presence of women on boards has
professionalised the recruitment of board members. We have intense
discussions about the best way to capture diversity proﬁle that meets the
particular needs of the board and to identify the skill and experience set
necessary for the board at that particular time. They are focused on
sourcing qualiﬁed candidates, and the recruitment is increasingly based
on merit and expected contribution, while the diversity proﬁle is a factor.
Is there a correlation between ﬁnancial performance and gender balance
or is there a correlation between ﬁnancial performance and board diver-
sity? That is a question!
Trends towards the notion of greater diversity can be seen on French
boards; it promotes independence of thoughts and improves board effec-
tiveness through different perspectives and knowledge. They can be
summarised in four words: male, frail, pale and stale. Understanding
that each individual, each human is unique and recognising that diverse
individuals bring different perspectives, I observe more respect and
120 E. Zenou et al.
appreciation of differences. However, it also needs inclusion that demon-
strates acceptance of differences and involves creating a sense of belonging
of all. Diversity without inclusion ignores unique perspective and adds
very little, if any, value.
What about diversity policy? Boards have to consider other types like
competency, ability and whether the board’s diversity reﬂects the diversity
of the market the company operates within. Canadian people consider
overall diversity and inclusion, age, geographic concentration, urban/rural
balance and disabilities, culture and sexual orientation. In Canada, gender
may include gender identiﬁcation (gay, bisexual, lesbian or transsexual).
In France, that’s a taboo subject on board.
Finally, it must be noted that women didn’t dare to be on boards. So
for me, interactive workshops are necessary. The goal is to empower
women to be more conﬁdent to lead and serve on boards and foster the
opportunity to network from each other in small groups setting with other
like-minded women. These workshops help women gain insights and
learn about the skills they need to prepare for board opportunities and
must be facilitated by corporate directors. Three words: Connect, pro-
mote and empower women.
For me, challenges are the deﬁnition of “diversity”, determining which
types of diversity are more important, at a given point in time for
improving board effectiveness, and determining appropriate initiatives
and measures. Moreover, senior executives are not so diverse. Can you
have diversity of thought without diversity and inclusion? Does diversity
of gender create diversity of thought?
To conclude, a law is necessary to make things change. Women bring
new ideas to the boards and the search for women candidates contributes
to improving board recruitment process. However women’s mind needs
to be changed to better convince them to become board members, women
should be more connected, promoted and empowered.
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5 Gender Diversity on French Boards: Example of a Success from a... 121
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