The professional equality policy in France – elements of comparison with Quebec, Belgium and Sweden

Publié le | Temps de lecture : 12 minutes

Constance Bensussan, Christine Branchu, Fréderic Laloue (Igas)

The purpose of the report described in the letter dated June 13, 2012 from the Minister of Women's Rights and the Minister of Labor, Employment, Professional Training and Social Dialog is to propose improvements in professional gender equality, with two main areas of focus:

  • Analysis of the implementation of the financial penalty system created by the law of November 9, 2010 for employers not covered by a professional equality agreement or plan;
  • Analysis of the policies and tools used to achieve professional equality in other countries. The aim was to identify means of ensuring that employers meet their obligations and that all social partners and stakeholders address the issues surrounding this topic.

The situation in France: an ambitious but fragmented professional equality policy
There are a multitude of professional equality measures in France. Their origins vary, with some taken from numerous international sources and others trickling down from national texts. They form a comprehensive legal framework of incentives, obligations for employers and sanctions.
On the whole, little is done to monitor these mechanisms. The mission's visits to three regions (Haute-Normandie, Lorraine, Languedoc-Roussillon) showed that these standards have not been very effective, as they have yet to be implemented by stakeholders.

As part of this overall framework, the financial penalty established by the law of November 9, 2010 is no exception to this general rule. Companies with at least 50 employees must be covered by a collective agreement or, failing that, by an action plan for professional gender equality. Companies who fail to establish an agreement or action plan must pay a financial penalty of up to 1% of the total payroll. The financial penalty system came into force on January 1, 2012.
The investigations conducted by the mission highlighted the system’s design flaws, which appeared in turn to have had a negative impact on its efficacy. The law evolved over the course of the mission, addressing the weaknesses in the financial penalty scheme.

It also appeared that the system had not been consistently implemented due to inadequate management at the time. When the system was created, the priority levels assigned to controls and the relevant procedures were not sufficiently clear. Furthermore, insufficient resources were provided to allow these procedures to be carried out. These factors led the mission to make recommendations with the aim of clarifying control methods and ensuring that the procedures and tools needed to achieve more consistent implementation of the financial penalty system are made available.

The limited effectiveness of the law is reflected in France’s results in the evaluations and rankings carried out by international organizations. Although the criteria used and the approaches taken vary and must be interpreted with caution, it seems that when it comes to the gender pay gap, women's access to managerial positions and large companies’ boards of directors as well as part-time work, France performs neither particularly well nor particularly poorly compared to other industrialized countries.

Quebec, Belgium, Sweden: different organizational models, shared priorities on pay, gender segregation in the workplace and achieving a work-life balance
From an institutional perspective, professional equality policy is organized differently in Quebec, Belgium and Sweden:

  • Independent administrative authorities play a prominent role in all cases, but their involvement may be limited to very specific areas of focus (pay gaps or workplace diversity in Quebec) or, conversely, appear to cover all gender-related issues (the Institute for Gender Equality (IEFH) in Belgium) or even all policies to combat discrimination and promote equality (the Equality Ombudsman – Diskriminierungs Ombudsman (DO) – in Sweden);
  • Belgium in particular has developed an integrated approach to professional equality (gender mainstreaming), which is reflected in all public policies. Its influence can be seen, for example, in the conditions regulating the composition of employers' and employees' organizations’ deliberative bodies, and the way that public tenders are beginning to be used as a means of promoting professional equality;
  • Professional equality policy is influenced by collective bargaining to varying extents. In Quebec, for example, it does not address the issue of gender pay gaps and gender diversity in the workplace, with these being treated as matters of public policy to be managed through obligations and sanctions, while Sweden and Belgium rely more heavily on the involvement of social partners. In all these places, the relationship between the role of the state and that of collective bargaining is a subject of discussion.

With regard to the content of the policies pursued, there are several debates surrounding professional equality policy, both in the three countries visited and within the institutions of the European Union. The economic crisis now appears to be a key factor here, which could either result in setbacks or possibly even progress in this area. The introduction of quotas designed to ensure equal gender representation on large companies’ boards of directors also appears to be a subject of great debate in the countries visited.
In Quebec, Belgium and Sweden, closing the gender pay gap is a key area of focus. The authorities responsible for professional equality policy have developed expertise and communications on the reasons for the gender pay gap, particularly:

  • The unequal distribution of part-time work between women and men;
  • Segregation within the labor market: horizontal segregation (with women and men working in different sectors of the labor market, e.g., healthcare and industrial production) and vertical segregation (with women generally holding less senior positions within the same industry and company);
  • Lower pay for jobs performed mainly by women: for historical and sociological reasons, jobs and roles traditionally performed by women are less well paid than those mainly performed by men;
  • Other factors affecting wage inequality that are not explained by the models used to analyze pay gaps, including direct discrimination. This concept is based on the European definition, i.e. a situation in which a person is treated less favorably than another in a comparable situation on prohibited grounds.

The mission was particularly interested in three public policy themes: re-initiating the evaluation of jobs and positions, combating occupational segregation and working to ensure a better work-life balance.

  • Quebec, Belgium and, to a lesser extent, Sweden have implemented policies designed to rectify the structural underpayment of jobs performed mainly by women. These policies involve implementing systems for evaluating jobs on a gender-neutral basis which ensure equal pay for different jobs that are of equal value to the company and society. For example, in a hotel, a housekeeping position is considered comparable to a porter’s position, a job that would generally be held by a man. These efforts have resulted in an ambitious equal pay policy in Quebec: companies with 10 or more employees are required to conduct a job comparison and pay gap reduction exercise, an obligation that is closely monitored by an independent administrative authority. In Belgium, the EVA (analytical EVAluation) approach, which was adopted by the Institute for Gender Equality between 1996 and 2007, aimed to raise social partners’ awareness of the potentially discriminatory effects of classifications, leading to the adoption of comprehensive and educational methodological tools. In Sweden, in the conditions for drawing up three-year gender equality plans, which are a requirement for companies with more than 25 employees, it is explicitly stated that a gender-neutral evaluation of the various positions within the company must be carried out;
  • Occupational segregation is considered to be “virtually unchanging and universal” by the OECD: for more than half of all occupations, more than 80% of those who practice it are of the same gender. The mission analyzed two measures to combat this phenomenon, one of which is more important than the other. Firstly, Quebec’s Equality Access Plans (PAE), which involve comparing, role by role, the percentage of positions held within companies by categories of employees who are subject to structural discrimination, including women, and the percentage of positions that should be held by these people based on statistics on the numbers of qualified people in the relevant geographical area, to help inform efforts to close this gap. Responsibility for implementing and evaluating the PAE was entrusted to an independent public authority: the Commission for Human Rights and Youth Rights (CDPDJ). In Sweden, a private training organization has been facilitating women’s access to executive roles for 25 years, with encouraging results;
  • The policy, which aims to promote a better work-life balance, appears to be a decisive factor in professional equality. The Swedish example is the most successful one with regard to parental leave, with generous rights enjoyed by both parents. These rights are protected and promoted by both the DO and social partners. Some interesting public support schemes, based on communication and methodological support, have been implemented in Quebec to promote a better work-life balance. In Great Britain, a carefully mapped-out procedure (the “right to request flexible working”), which was introduced in 2003, has allowed employees to change how their working hours are organized to accommodate their own personal circumstances.

Recommendations: three potential approaches inspired by experiences in other countries
For each of the points studied, the mission has sought to take the current situation in France into consideration in order to propose potential changes that could be made, inspired by the positive elements of the systems of the other countries studied. There are three general approaches that could be taken.
Professional equality schemes in Quebec, Belgium and Sweden all focus on the issue of pay. This is less of a priority in French policies, which take a broader approach to the issue of professional equality. The issue of unequal pay could be more accurately defined and more comprehensive measures could be taken to address the factors that result in inequality:

  • An understanding of the issue of gender-based pay gaps as involving more than just direct discrimination between a man and a woman placed in a completely identical situation should be promoted and encouraged. An annual statistical publication highlighting the various reasons for these gaps would be a useful way to communicate information on the subject. This could be released on Equal Pay Day, for example, which is currently celebrated in several European countries;
  • Occupational gender diversity could be achieved by creating an inter-professional training scheme to help women get promoted to managerial positions, having public services monitor and distribute information on the percentage of women in each profession, and creating gender diversity indicators at regional or industry level;
  • The method used to evaluate roles and occupations on a gender-neutral basis is the subject of expert work carried out under the aegis of France’s rights protection officer. Examples from other countries show that, in addition to investing in this methodological tool, an institution needs to be appointed to promote its use;
  • The lack of information on pay within companies hinders efforts to reduce the gender pay gap. The development of analytical tools within companies would go some way to helping resolve this issue.

Support measures to help people achieve a better work-life balance could be implemented to complement those that already exist and be made a policy in their own right:

  • Flexible working hours in companies could be promoted by developing a flexible working hours charter for large companies, by providing human resources managers with additional training on this issue, by focusing the efforts of the National Agency for the Improvement of Working Conditions (ANACT) on SMEs and male-dominated sectors in order to share best practices for flexible working arrangements, and by introducing a “right to request” based on the procedure developed in Great Britain, guaranteeing employees that their requests for flexible working hours will be given serious consideration based on a formalized procedure;
  • Use of parental leave could be improved by creating the legal conditions that would allow it to be shared between both parents and by making unfavorable treatment based on someone’s decision to take parental leave prohibited grounds for discrimination;
  • The creation of a dedicated website would help to raise awareness of available support measures, which are an aspect of both family policy and labor policy, and encourage the use of human resources management tools to support companies in their actions (parental guide, self-assessment tools, training), in line with practices in Quebec and Sweden.

Consideration could be given to the means of public intervention in regard to professional equality: the content of the measures could be simplified and the institutions responsible for promoting and enforcing the legislation could cooperate more closely with each other.

  • An effective, overarching professional equality strategy could be based on simplification of the law and the adoption of a progressive approach to the application of professional equality objectives, both with regard to the content of the provisions themselves and their implementation, which could be achieved through voluntary action, obligation and then obligation accompanied by a sanction, in that order;
  • The use of transparency measures could be a useful interim goal for professional equality policies: this could include forcing employers found guilty of discrimination to finance a public audit, or monitoring employers’ obligation to publish a summary of their action plan for professional equality on their website;
  • The creation and promotion of a single “Equality-Diversity” label combining both the Equality Label and the Diversity Label would mean that these public distinctions could be awarded only to those who effectively comply with applicable professional equality legislation;
  • The integrated approach to professional equality could be strengthened by several means, based on Belgium’s example: adoption of an equality charter by social partners, allowing for the principles of gender balance in internal bodies to be extended to employees' and employers' organizations; providing tools for drawing up texts and public policies that incorporate gender-related matters a priori; integrating conditions relating to respect for professional equality into applications for public tenders and the execution thereof;
  • The response of the institutions responsible for professional equality could be strengthened by ensuring better coordination of their work. At an operational level, the regional actors responsible for women's rights and the respective measures taken by the Labor Inspectorate, the Women's Rights and Equality Department and the Rights Protection Officer could be coordinated in order to both combat discrimination and promote equality.

Finally, the investigations conducted by the mission led it to examine issues that appear to be cross-disciplinary, and which could in and of themselves constitute specific areas of study for public authorities and social partners:

  • The matter of how the respective areas of focus of collective bargaining and public policy are distributed: the boundaries between these two areas vary from one country to the next and tend to shift as recognition of indirect discrimination gradually increases under the influence of EU law. What used to be the sole domain of collective bargaining, especially the evaluation of jobs and qualifications, increasingly finds itself part of the fight against discrimination, which falls within the scope of public policy;
  • The matter, linked to that above, of how the respective areas of intervention of the institutions responsible for promoting equality and those responsible for combating discrimination are defined and how coordination between these institutions is achieved;
  • The matter of the doctrine behind transparency obligations and the ways in which these are used in policies to promote equality and combat discrimination and, more generally, in the levers available for enforcing the law.


ANACT (France)Agence nationale pour l’amélioration des conditions de travail (National Agency for the Improvement of Working Conditions)
DO (Sweden)Diskriminerungs ombudsman (Equality Ombudsman)
PAE (Québec)Plans d’accès à l’égalité (Equality Access Plans)
SMESmall and medium-sized enterprises