HR and Gender Parity

Jacqueline Laufer, Professor of Management and Human Ressources - September 15th, 2008
Parité hommes-femmes, Laufer

The 2004 Catalyst group survey findings point to a direct correlation between corporate financial performance and the number of female senior executives¹. Does this mean that gender parity has become a reality in companies? Jacqueline Laufer isn’t convinced… 

Jacqueline Laufer ©HEC Paris

Jacqueline Laufer has an Advanced Educational Diploma (French DEA) in Sociology from the École Pratique des Hautes Études de Paris and a PhD from Cornell University, and joined (...)

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Since the Second World War, there has been a gradual increase—with varying degrees depending on the country—in the number of female employees in the developed world. They are more highly qualified2, and have fully established themselves in the workplace, including in high responsibility posts. Yet, despite this encouraging evolution, inequalities and discriminations persist. There’s a high rate of over-qualification for the posts women occupy, pay differences with male peers, the ‘glass ceiling’ phenomenon, obligatory part-time posts, and so on. These inequalities cannot be attributed purely to the past—Jacqueline Laufer firmly believes that these inequalities seem set to continue. 


Laws are necessary but insufficient to deal with professional equality issues. They only work when they lead to changes in practice and produce concrete actions. While the 1946 French Constitution insisted on male–female equality and put an end to discrimination, it didn’t bring about true equality. The 1972 law on equal pay is an excellent example of the limited effects of laws: the promotion of ‘equal work, equal pay’ didn’t put an end to the different professional situations that lead to disparities between male and female wages. Companies have long shifted the blame for the inequalities they perpetuate on society and women onto the education system, the inadaptability of the labour market, the lack of ambition of female employees, family restrictions, and so on. 


The evolution in juridical norms since the mid- 1970s, especially through European directives3, has provided European countries with solid means to implement professional equality initiatives. The French law of 13 July 1983 (in line with the European Council Directive of 9 February 1976) focused on the principles of equal treatment and equal chances, reinforced women’s rights in many areas, and stressed the legitimacy of ‘affirmative action’: ‘It is not possible to apply identical measures to people in differentiated situations, without perpetuating inequalities’4. We have gradually moved on from seeking legal equality to real equality. The 13 July 1983 law, and that of 9 May 2001 directly involved the companies in the implementation of professional equality. Today, it is obligatory to negotiate annually on professional equality. Since 2002, fourteen branch agreements and 129 company agreements have been signed in France in relation to this issue. (ORSE, French observatory on corporate social responsibility, 2008).


The question of gender parity and inequality issues at work has long been approached from the cost angle and the subject has not really inspired mobilization either in the workplace or in society at large. But, the high increase in the employment of women over the last thirty years5 has forced companies to review their practices. It is estimated that in France 50% of junior administrative and commercial executives are women. While the law can encourage professional equality, gender mix and ‘diversity’ are also strategically important for companies’ performance, social responsibility, HR development, greater involvement of male and female employees, and internal and external legitimacy. Add to that the initiatives implemented by women themselves, like the creation of the HEC au Féminin network, which promotes contact and the sharing of experiences between female HEC graduates. Companies consequently adapt their recruitment, training processes, and working conditions for women to guarantee the global performance of their HR department.


A professional equality policy must be tackled in the same way as any other change project. It involves a commitment from senior management, the mobilization of every stakeholder (especially the unions), the development of diagnostic tools and concrete action plans, and regular progress assessment reports. The implementation depends on the situation in hand. For example, some companies choose to focus on the recruitment process while others concentrate on career management, or promote working life by improving the work–life balance for employees. All initiatives need to be part of a global review of HR processes, with the aim of moving away from ‘neutral’ norms that are in fact modelled on traditional ‘masculine’ notions; these are often involuntarily discriminatory for women and need to be redefined in the light of equality and gender mix at all organizational levels. 


It has to be said that even when companies are making great efforts, declarations of intent tend to remain just that, instead of leading to concrete actions. And, very often, it’s only the major companies that implement HR policies that promote gender parity. It’s harder for small and medium sized companies—their HR departments are less developed— to implement active policies that require the input of many actors. Lastly, promoting professional equality involves a whole range of actions, from sensitizing managers about stereotypes, detecting high-talent potentials, and the correlation of certain remuneration practices. Effective professional equality policies depend on companies’ ability, whatever their size, to coordinate long-term actions and policies in an ‘integrated approach’ to professional equality, and this has now become a major strategic issue for companies. 

1. Catalyst , "The Bottom Line: Connecting Corporate Performance and Gender Diversity", 2004.

2. In France, in 2004, 82.4% of women aged between 20 and 24 had a higher education diploma compared with 78.9% of men (Claire Gavray, GRH et genre : Les défis de l'égalité hommes-femmes, (HRM and the challenges of gender parity), published by Vuibert, 2008, p. 5-6).

3. The European Union now considers gender parity as a fundamental right.

4. Extract fromthe French law of 13 July 1983 on equal opportunities between men and women in the workplace.

5. In 2004, in Europe, the percentage of working women was 60%, versus 44% at the start of the 1970s (L’évolution de l’activité féminine dans l’Union européenne, convergences et divergences (evolutions of working women in the European Union: convergence and divergence), by Virginie Delsart, Sébastien Richard, and Nicolas Vaneecloo, Innovations  No. 20, 2004/2, De Boeck University.

Based on an interview with Jacqueline Laufer and on the book she edited and co-wrote with Annie Cornet and Sophia Belghiti-Mahut, "GRH et genre : Les défis de l'égalité hommes-femmes" (HRM and gender parity issues), published by Vuibert , May 2008.