Speaking on the eve of International Women's Day, the French government's Minister for the Rights of Women Najat Vallaud-Belkacem gave a speech in front of a gathering of equal rights and feminist groups in Paris.
She told them her number one priority was to bring equality to the work place. "If we accept that men are paid more than women, then we will accept all kinds of inequalities," she said. The minister also vowed to introduce financial penalties against firms who do not do enough tackle the 'unacceptable' inequality in wages for men and women employed in the same post.
The minister has her work cut out, with a new study by statistics agency INSEE, released to mark Women's Day revealing men are paid on average 18 percent more than women the public sector and 28 percent more than women in the private sector. That represents only a marginal improvement on 20 years ago, when the gap in the private sector stood at 34 percent. In the banking and insurance sectors the discrepancy is as much as 44 percent.
Sexism is not just apparent in the workplace. Ministers in France's government were encouraged to sign up for anti-sexism courses last year aimed at teaching them how to avoid casual discrimination. This came not long after Housing Minister Cécile Duflot was wolf-whistled by a number of men in the French parliament when she stood up to speak wearing a flowery dress, an incident which provoked a hearty debate in the French media on the issue of sexism in France.
To get a view on how deep the problem of sexism in French society goes, The Local spoke to Julie Muret, spokeswoman for women's rights group Osez le Feminisme (Dare feminism).
What significance does International Women's day have for you?
We know very well that a lot of progress has been made in the area of women's rights, but a day like today gives us an opportunity to look at what still needs to be done and where things can improve. But we need to talk about these issues every day of the year, not just on International Women's day. For example women earn on average 27 percent less than men in France and pensions for retired women are on average 40 less than for men. Domestic violence is still a huge problem in France with one in ten women a victim.
Have things improved under the current Socialist government?
We had been calling on governments to designate a special Minister for Women’s Rights for 26 years and now we finally have one. She has made a difference. Before when we just had a Minister for Diversity, our issues were all mixed up many other questions surrounding racism or discrimination of older people or those who are handicapped.
With our own minister we have been able to accelerate things and advance a little. There is now a new law against sexual harassment and there is a law on promoting gender equality in primary schools that was put forward by the education minister.
We also want a law on prostitution.
Do you want prostitution outlawed?
Yes, we know it won’t disappear over-night but it will reduce it. We want the government to agree that it’s unacceptable to pay for sex. It leads to violence against women and encourages exploitation of the body. We want a law that punishes people who pay for sex.
The world of French politics has been considered sexist - have things changed under Hollande?
Well the government is made up of 17 women and 17 men just as Hollande had promised but outside that, in the rest of politics it is a catastrophe. Things are moving very slowly. We want a law that gives people the choice between voting for a man and a woman in the regional elections. A lot of the time women put themselves forward as candidates but are just forgotten about and the place is given to a man.
And what about in the workplace?
Women and men often chose different kinds of careers, with women in France still heading into less valued jobs such as in health and education. That’s in the culture, but there are also examples of pure discrimination against women in the workplace.
Women who have the same qualifications, studied the same courses and achieved the same grades as their male counterparts and work in the exactly the same roles but are still getting paid less money than them. If a woman has a child her career will often suffer as a result but a man will probably be promoted.
A lot of the sexism in professional life is implicit. Even at the recruitment stage employers can put on the advert whether they want a man or a woman, but they will often just recruit a man. A woman’s competencies will often be questioned, they ask themselves ‘does she really have the skills required for the role?’ The same questions are often not asked about men.
We need to raise awareness of this and make sure careers are diversified so it is not just women becoming secretaries and men mechanics.
Businesses who don’t respect the laws of equality need to be punished through the courts. An example needs to be made out of them that will send a warning to others.
Did the DSK Sofitel scandal make a difference in France?
It caused a lot of anger among women here in France. People were shocked with what was being said by said people such as, “she was only a maid, it doesn’t matter” or “she was too ugly to be raped”. She was never considered as a victim. It was scandalous. We called for a protest and within just three days we managed to get 3,000 people to join the march.