Tag Archives: Gloria Steinem

Women in the workplace – we’ve still got it wrong

I’ve never taken the time to look into why feminism is described in waves: second wave, third wave… not sure which wave we’re on now… but the analogy seems to be apropos, concerning its presence in our daily lives. One day it’s here, the next day it’s not.

Take Gloria Steinem and the 1960’s and 70’s in general. You couldn’t even look at a pair of bell bottoms without discussing the ins and outs of who wore the pants in the family. These days, feminism is a bit more subtle, with people like Rebecca Walker and Elisabeth Badinter creeping into the picture, causing a minor ruckus, before disappearing for another five years.

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But lately, feminism — particularly the issue of women in the workplace — has been coming out from behind the curtains in more conspicuous ways. Maybe the journalists don’t even realize they’re running comparable stories, but it’s happening: from America to England to France, people are once again talking about where women fit into the professional picture.

In a May 8th issue of The Economist, we learn that a new French law will force the country’s top companies to name a certain proportion of women among their top executives. With the goal of 40% by 2016, France has a long way to go, where women currently hold only 11% of about 580 board seats at the 40 largest firms. And then we learn that the French are making a mockery of this law.

Bernadette Chirac, wife of former French president Jacques, has been nominated to the board of LVMH with the following credentials, according to the company: “She was female and as a first lady she supported fashion and regularly attended catwalk shows.” Well, that sure sounds like a match to me.

The Economist reports that bosses are taking the new law so lightly that many executives are planning to nominate their wives or girlfriends – women with little relevant experience and a pretty face, who will sit down and shut up and continue to let men take the reins. The magazine writes: “One boss asked a headhunter for photographs of candidates and said he would treat looks as his first criterion, ahead of industry experience.”

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What is so wholly maddening is the way the French press has attended to this issue, or not attended to it, as the case may be. Months ago, the new law was mentioned in a five-line blurb and then never again. Then, in a May 29th issue of Le Monde, we learn that Claude Chirac, the 47 year-old daughter of the former president, has resigned from her position as director of communication at Francois-Henri Pinault, PPR, without knowing why — but that mom Bernadette has (as we now know) accepted the position of administrator for LVMH. No details are given as to how or why Bernadette qualified for this position, nor what exactly she will do for the company.

Perhaps this situation is evidence of French culture, which is taught from a young age not to question things. From elementary school through university, young people sit in filled Education Nationale classrooms worrying more about which colored pen they should use while taking notes than whether to challenge the teacher.

Or it could be France’s male-dominated culture. Men still outweigh women in the workplace and while paternity-leave does abound (unlike in America), men are the breadwinners in most families.

Now, it’s all well and good to bash the other team but unfortunately feminism is one area where America can’t play the “We’re the best in the world” card. Women held 13.5% of top positions in Fortune 50o companies in 2009, just a few measly percentage points over the Frogs. And even those who are there are not getting the respect they deserve.

In Time magazine’s May 24, 2010 edition, “The New Sheriffs of Wall Street” piece examines the female power players in the U.S financial and political systems who are picking up the pieces of the recent Wall Street crisis – a crisis largely created by men. Sheila Bair, of the FDIC, became a notorious whistleblower on the economic downturn back in 2007, when she noticed that American banks were in trouble. When she tried to point out the issues, the response was hostile: “They were shocked and horrified,” she said. By the end of 2008, Bair was proven right. Twenty-five banks became insolvent and were taken over by the FDIC.

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At a recent event to celebrate women’s role in finance, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner made reference to a headline he had read that said, “What if Women Ran Wall Street?” He responded to the crowd with a low-brow joke: “Now, that’s an excellent question, but it’s kind of a low bar… how, might you ask, could women not have done better?”

In effect, the men have mucked up Wall Street so thoroughly that only a woman can clean it up. After all, that’s what women do best, isn’t it? Cleaning? The Mother-Son analogy couldn’t be more poignant than in this very moment. Whether in a romantic or family relationship, women have earned the heartwarming stereotype of spending their lives tidying up men’s messes. And women often fall right in line with this grim picture, doing just that.

As the few final months of 2010 fleet away and we embark on a new decade, I’m hoping women in the workplace won’t be just another newspaper headline we ponder for a few days before chucking it into the bin. Like race and sexual orientation debates, feminism is something that needs to be discussed openly and often if we’re ever going to get out of the woods. So I don’t know about you, but I’m grabbing my surf board now so I’m sure to be ready when the next wave of feminism happens to sweep in.

Riding the wave of French feminism

I have a bone to pick with Alain Soral, French sociologist and ex-Front National party member. It’s not his pretension or even his manipulation of his “followers” that bothers me, but instead his definition and loathing of modern feminism.

Soral claims there are two types of feminists: the “freaked out” feminist like Simone de Beauvoir, and the “bitches” such as Elisabeth Badinter. He claims that the modern feminist model only pertains to the plight of upper middle-class white women. At his debate in Bordeaux last Saturday, he openly admitted to detesting the “American neo-feminist.” I hate to break it to Alain, but being an American female today – or any female at all – means being a feminist. After all, what sort of gender would we be if we didn’t fight for our equal rights within a world run by men?

De Beauvoir

French feminist Simone de Beauvoir, circa 1955

In a televised program I watched recently, Soral claimed that the reason fewer homeless women were on the street than men was because they liberally took advantage of their ability to get government aid – and subsequently housing – by having a child. Do you mean to tell me that if I shoot myself up with drugs, run away from my family or lose my job and home, that I can simply have a baby and everything will turn out okay?

The idea in itself is ridiculous. This goes right along with those (mostly men or the religious right) who believe that birth control or the morning-after pill actually condone having unprotected, careless sex. Only a handful of women are dumb to the fact that having a baby is a lifetime commitment, not one to be taken lightly and certainly not a way to get out of a sticky situation. The fact is, having a baby usually is the most sticky situation a woman can find herself in. No matter how involved a man is in a pregnancy, those 9 months can only be fully experienced by the woman herself.

I’m not alone in opposing Soral’s views on the French homeless woman of the 21st century. On France Inter today, reporters announced the completion of a study as to the greatest risks of a woman on the street. Far and above was the issue of rape and sexual assault. So when Soral says that the reason we don’t see as many homeless women out there is because they are living comfortably in their government-owned apartments with their new babies, I have to disagree. Because the risks of being a woman and on the street are so high, most find shelter elsewhere – be that with friends, a boyfriend (even if he is abusive, this may be the more likable option) or at a homeless shelter. Being homeless is scary enough without bringing a child into the mix.

I think before anyone talks about feminism in France, the French language must change with the times. France has come a long way in terms of women’s rights, and soars high above U.S. legislation on the subject. French women get maternity leave for up to 16 weeks. If a French woman so chooses, she can take up to three years off (unpaid) from her job and come back to it afterwards with total job security. And she can ask for a one-month vacation from her job within three years of having her child, and be paid approximately 500 euros by the government-run CAF.

Glamour Magazine Hosts The 17th Annual Glamour Women Of The Year Awards

Gloria Steinem has been the face of American feminism for decades

So, then why are we still using terms such as “Husband and woman (mari et femme)” or “My woman (ma nana)” to refer to a man’s female counterpart? Of course these are but few feeble examples. But France has long explored ways to remove the sexism from its language and come up dry. In 1993, the University of California at Berkeley actually studied the relationship between the French language and gender in a course entitled, “Sexual Difference, Gender and the French Language.” As the course outlines:

“Though there is no necessary correlation between gender, as a grammatical category and sexism in language, for a variety of reasons, cultural as well as linguistic, it has been difficult for French, particularly in France (in contrast to francophone communities outside the Hexagon), to comfortably institute nonsexist usage.”

It seems, since 1993, that not much as been resolved. And Alain Soral’s sexist rhetoric certainly isn’t helping things. While Americans are already onto “third-wave feminism” (a movement led by Rebecca Walker, which challenges second-wave feminism and focuses on the rights of the non-white, wealthy female), the F-word is still a gros mot in France today and linked largely to homosexuality. It rests heavily in literary theory and philosophy instead of practice. As the scholar Elizabeth Wright points out, “none of these [well-known] French feminists align themselves with the feminist movement as it appeared in the Anglophone world.”

Feminism in France needs to start with women themselves. I wouldn’t say the situation here is grave, but it’s certainly urgent.