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ChangeNow 2024

This is a woman’s world, this is my world,” sings Neneh Cherry. On this International Labour Day, while progress for women is undeniable, one thing is clear: the status of women varies greatly from one region of the world to another.

In Iran, restrictions remain draconian. It is forbidden to sing in public without the almost unattainable permission of the authorities, to ride a bicycle or get too close to a spouse, and Iranian women must wear the veil. They cannot shake hands with a man or be alone with him. Their right to work is still hampered by the requirement of spousal permission. Access to education is still very limited.

They are a world away from the 14 countries (out of 195 officially recognised) where, according to the 
World Bank, there is full legal equality between the sexes. France, Germany and other countries where education, employment, independence and freedom are inalienable rights for women. 

But even here the goal has not been reached. Wage gaps, glass ceilings, violence… These inequalities still tarnish this ‘woman’s world’. This day is an opportunity to take stock of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go to achieve real emancipation.

Executive Women at work: the complex equation of emancipation

Prejudices die hard. Whether inherited from our personal histories, our cultures or societal trends, these gender stereotypes have a lasting impact on the way we think. They are even present right down to our choice of words and grammar, which condition our gender biases, as the company Unbias and my colleague, Michael Martens have clearly understood.  This has implications for women’s careers.

Most women are more reluctant to negotiate their salary and often cultivate an exaggerated perfectionism, a nagging feeling that they need to ‘tick all the boxes’ to feel legitimate. To be the ideal companion, the accomplished mother, the woman with a theoretically fulfilling career… A burden of conflicting demands on their shoulders. Things are evolving with a great deal of awareness, which sometimes involves violent reactions to what has been accepted and put up with for years, but there’s still a long way to go. 

When I work with women leaders with remarkable path, I see this paradox: recurring doubts despite high-level skills, solid careers and decision-making responsibilities. For mothers, the equation is even more difficult. It’s a challenge that Emilie Friedli, founder of the Mères’ programme in France, has experienced first-hand. 

While social attitudes are changing, legal attitudes sometimes struggle to keep pace. While some men are challenging old male stereotypes, institutions are lagging behind. How can we change the mindset of organisations, whether private or public, to integrate parenthood into career management? And especially when it’s the first children and young children, into career management. I won’t even mention the case of working parents who are faced with an obstacle course to help their handicaped children who don’t fit into the ‘boxes’ while trying to manage their careers.

Real emancipation is achieved step by step, at the cost of constant introspection through the ongoing deconstruction of cultural determinisms, the only way to achieve a fully egalitarian world.

Women Careers and parenthood: shattering the glass ceiling

Consider an ‘egalitarian’ couple in Paris or Berlin. Despite the apparently ideal conditions, lot of cases the woman ends up at a disadvantage. The higher up the career ladder you go, the greater the pay gap: up to 24% in the private sector in France18% in Germany, where part-time work for women is widespread.

One of the explanation? After giving birth, which is a physiological and psychological upheaval, many women take a break.  A break that coincides with the right time for promotions, which men are more likely to take.

When the child arrives – in France and Germany, not in the Nordic countries, which have other, more progressive policies – the father could, in theory, take a back seat. In practice, however, it’s more difficult to take this step, for fear of holding back career advancement in the face of colleagues without family responsibilities.
 In the end, the ‘egalitarian’ couple will often opt for a strategy that minimises the loss of income.

This implacable demonstration is not a generality, but reflects a reality: the frequent professional self-censorship of mothers due to the absence of non-discriminatory mechanisms. The media also have a responsibility not to encourage women to ‘learn to do everything well’, but to collectively rethink the sustainable balance between family and professional life.

No one can ‘have it all’. But it is possible to rebalance over time, with one person carrying the load while the other progresses, and vice versa. Breaking this glass ceiling means inventing new patterns where parenthood, male or female, is no longer an obstacle but a natural step, fully integrated by management, boards and institutions alike.

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