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1Jacqueline Laufer has written an overview of legislative progress on this issue in France and the difficulties that arise when it comes to actually implementing laws in private- and public-sector companies. Persistent impediments to male-female occupational equality have made it necessary to apply sanctions, positive discrimination and quotas. The book is organized into four substantial parts. The first handles the mixed picture of how labour market inequality was constructed in France, the organizational processes and family relations involved. The second takes up the legal principles that get activated in the battle to obtain occupational equality for women. The third examines the issues and actors involved in the question of occupational equality, i.e., the state, companies, and unions. The fourth describes how occupational equality is being implemented. This book makes a two-fold contribution : while offering a painstaking reconstitution of the socio-historical events that led to establishing a policy of male-female occupational equality in France, now recognized and supported by a legal framework, it also notes that the “glass ceiling” has remained in place and analyses this phenomenon by way of the author’s own empirical studies of both private- and public-sector companies.

2Laufer’s work begins with a few figures showing that women are concentrated in employment “niches” that make use of their “natural specificities.” More women than men work part-time or on fixed-term contracts, and women’s careers are interrupted more frequently and for longer periods than men’s. Consequently, women’s wages are lower, even in the civil service. The “glass ceiling” is to be found in all occupations. The corollary to constructing differences between men and women is a devaluing of women’s work, and this in turn results in lasting stereotypes linking women to their role as mothers, whereas the prestigious models are usually male and involve mobility, personal investment in work, and availability. These stereotypes are reinforced by social and family policy.

3The author stresses the legal and legislative framework developed in France to ensure equal employment opportunity ; she calls for “effective corrective mechanisms” be put in place at the EU and international levels to reduce social inequalities. The French legal framework encompasses laws on equal rights and protection for working women (maternity leave and protection for women and mothers, equal treatment, day/night work, part-time work, positive discrimination, quotas, etc.). Laufer then examines what she calls France’s “state feminism,” the initial foundations of which were laid in the late 1970s. All the different labour actors–the state, companies, unions–have been engaged in promoting women’s rights in the public and private spheres. The state has been represented by several structures over time : the Comité du Travail Féminin (CTF, committee on working women), which worked to ensure male/female wage equality and had considerable impact ; the central government department for women’s rights (SDF), which focuses on occupational training for women as a means of attaining the goal of employment equality ; and the Conseil Supérieur de l’Egalité Professionnelle (CSEP, higher council for occupational equality), an institution that includes unions and employers. She criticizes these institutions for not drawing more fully on contributions from feminist and other associations. Indeed, it was not until 2001, when the occupational equality law was passed, that the state first took up demands addressed to employers. This in turn led to the establishment of commissions for assessing how best to achieve occupational equality. In 1995, the Observatoire de la Parité (parity watch) was set up, later renamed Haut Conseil à l’Egalité (high council for equality), with the task of assessing and reducing occupational inequalities. Lastly, in 2013, the state set up the Haut Conseil à l’Egalité entre les Femmes et les Hommes (HCEFH, high council for equality between women and men), the idea being to introduce this objective into public policy. The author notes that at first this created tensions and contradictory imperatives : part-time work and parental leave, for example, were generally offered to women.

4Companies too were required to follow an “equality plan” (law of 1983), but this was only actually implemented in the public sector. The plan called for training women for the kind of jobs they seldom or never chose. In 2004, a government certification of equality was created ; in the same year the HALDE (Haute Autorité de Lutte contre les Discriminations et pour l’Egalité) antidiscrimination and equal opportunity commission was established, proof that occupational equality was making headway as a value. The idea behind these new institutions was to change social representations and individual aspirations and to improve training. One of their effects has been gradually to transform the discourse on equality into a discourse on ethnic diversity. For Laufer, fighting discrimination implies using gender and ethnic differences to economic ends.

5In the first decade of the twenty-first century the unions’ role has been to ensure that occupational equality is an important issue in labour negotiations. However, the presence of women at the negotiation table does not necessarily provide stronger guarantees that women and their interests will be protected. Above all, women have to acquire a stronger, more active presence in the unions, through training and the combining of occupational, union and militant activities, facilitating their participation in meetings and negotiations that are known to go on all night. The new actors are women’s rights centre, associations, institutional actors (HALDE), associations combating violence against women, executive women networks, and research networks (MAGE, Cahiers du Genre, research projects on gender and society), etc.

6In the last part of the book, Laufer studies how occupational equality has been implemented, namely through inter-professional and activity-specific agreements, these last initially reached in 1983 and applied in 2004 with the signature of the National Inter-professional Accord (ANI) requiring concrete action in favour of occupational gender mix and wage equality as well as catch-up measures to compensate for existing wage gaps. At this point the author presents other programmes that have been put in place for improving occupational equality, namely company-specific agreements, which have been rising in number since 2007. The main problem, despite increasing empirical research into their content and implementation, is tracking the application of these agreements and assessing their effectiveness. However, negotiations should help in achieving occupational equality in connection with three distinct principles or activities : the non-discrimination principle, inequality and discrimination assessment, and design and application of concrete measures.

7Laufer then turns the spotlight on the French civil service, using comparative situation reports (RSC) to study how the principle of occupational equality is applied when it comes to national civil service juries and jury chairpersonships, and senior or oversight positions. These reports include recommendations on how to “accompany” and track careers, as well as on training. Despite difficulties in diagnosis, research and assessment, there is a political will to improve the situation. At the legal level, meanwhile, the main development in addition to the requirement to negotiate occupational equality has been the instituting of just such comparative situation reports, compulsory for companies with over 50 employees.

8The author concludes that despite supposed progress, small companies (fewer than 50 employees) in France are under no obligation to achieve male-female occupational equality and that result assessment at large companies is difficult. Occupational equality remains the main issue in a struggle to which Laufer herself makes a useful contribution through her detailed analyses of the content of French laws, the degree to which they are implemented, the limitations and defects of each law and situation, and her proposals of workable long-term solutions.

Dorothée Serges Garcia
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Uploaded on on 27/04/2016
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