Why French women have so little equality, a story in charts

October 25, 2012

Members of the French Green Party protest for gender equality measures. (FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images)

A new report that scores and ranks the countries of the world by gender equality also highlights a surprising trend. Though Western Europe tends to be by far the best place in the world for women, according to the report's data, one of Europe's most progressive societies lags surprisingly far behind: France.

The French Republic ranks 57th in the world for women's equality, behind much of Eastern Europe, as well as Mongolia, Uganda and others. The story of why and how is a complicated and contested one, but here's what the data portrays. First, from the World Economic Forum's new data, here is France's overall gender equality score over time compared with those of Western Europe and the United States:


(Data source: World Economic Forum)

Other than Italy, which has long been accused of treating women relatively poorly, France is by far the worst country for women in Western Europe. (Portugal, not shown, ranks near Spain.) But, as the chart shows, this was not always the case. After President Nicolas Sarkozy took office in mid-2007, when inequality was considered even worse than it is now, gender equality surged for French women. Here's French gender status broken down into four key areas and charted over time:


(Data source: World Economic Forum)

Today, much of the inequality appears to affect women's political empowerment, for which France ranks 63rd, just beneath Ethiopia. Economic opportunity for French women is similarly low, particularly on wage equality, on which France ranks a stunning 129th in the world. According to the World Economic Forum's global survey, France is the absolute worst in the world for gender wage equality. Here's the data:


(Data source: World Economic Forum)

What makes this all the more striking is how well French women seem to be doing on other indicators, particularly child care, education and health. But is it possible that what makes France unusually generous to women also informs what makes the state so tough on them?

"Courtesy of the state, French women seem to have it all: multiple children, a job and, often, a figure to die for," noted a 2010 New York Times story on the French government programs meant very specifically and openly to encourage women to have more babies. "French women earn 26 percent less than men but spend twice as much time on domestic tasks. They have the most babies in Europe, but are also the biggest consumers of anti-depressants."

Like much of the developed world, and particularly Western Europe, the French economy is facing potential long-term challenges as its birth rate slows, a common trend in rich countries that causes welfare-dependent elderly populations to grow and workforces to shrink. So the government is trying to encourage more babies, and the effort  has been so successful that it's sometimes called "la miracle Français." 

France's unusual success in growing its population may have to do when it started its campaign. As the Times story explains, one lesson France learned from its 1870 defeat in a war with Prussia was that larger populations make for stronger armies. After losing more than 1 million lives during World War I, France began awarding medals to mothers of eight or more children. It still spends more than 5 percent of its national GDP just on family benefits such as paid maternity leave and child care.

But this "miracle" carries significant costs, as well, and can relegate women to a biological rather than social function in society. Is it possible that this thinking has trickled down into the business and political worlds? France has made occasional efforts to reverse the inequality, electing a number of women into office in 2008, but then voting many of them back out in 2010 after the euro financial crisis began. Since the 1980s, the country has passed law after law requiring businesses to give equal pay, but subsequent studies have found barely any compliance and scant enforcement. In 2010, the French government issued a lengthy report detailing its plans to finally address the issues. But since then, its gender equality rankings have dropped.

Geneviève Fraisse, a French author and expert on gender issues, suggested to the Times for its 2010 story that the problem was bottom-up -- a part of French society itself -- rather than top-down. We had one revolution,” she told the paper. “Now we need another one — in the family.”

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Max Fisher | October 25, 2012