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Business Culture: Women in Business

France has come a long way in terms of gender equality over the last 50 years, but in this society where social class and appearance play major roles in what doors are opened for a person, a woman’s “place” is subject to many factors. For example, members of the bourgeoisie class tend to control much of the education and industry in society. Women in this class often have opportunities for positions that members of the lower classes do not. Ironically, women in the higher-salaried jobs still make on average only 75 percent of what a man makes in a similar position, while women engaged in work for lower pay make around 90 percent of what men in the same position bring home in pay. More women can be found working in the public sector than the private. Twenty-five percent of all jobs held by women are part-time. 

Public Presence

There is very little gender segregation in France. Women here share public and private space with men, whether in a restaurant, a taxi, an office, a park, or at a beach. Women mingle with men on the street, as well as at parties or other social functions.

One thing you will notice immediately, and especially in Paris, is the emphasis on fashion in women’s everyday dress. Black, tight-fitting clothing, accented by a colorful scarf or other accessories, is common, paired with fashionable heels or boots. White sneakers and non-designer jeans will immediately identify you as a foreigner or a tourist. In the office, wear stylish suits or elegant dresses. If your travels take you to Southern France during the warm season, you can don a fashionable blouse, classy shorts, and designer sunglasses for a stroll in the sun. In almost all situations, the French try to look their best, as a measure of their confidence, self-esteem, and social position. When on the beach, French women often sunbathe topless. Because the practice is so common, French men generally pay no more attention to topless women than to covered ones on beaches. At the country’s several nude beaches, however, titillation is more of a factor.

Women and men interact freely in France, and women are free to move about the city or countryside with anyone they choose, or alone if preferred.

Personal Interaction

The French often have the reputation for being aloof and unwelcoming to foreigners. However, this initial reserve is actually used with almost any stranger. Once a level of trust has been established, the barriers drop to reveal a generally warm and friendly people. The French usually stand an arm’s length or closer to a person, and as your acquaintance becomes more familiar, light touches on the arms or shoulders accompany the conversation. Men and women typically exchange bises (small kisses) on the cheeks when greeting each other, especially once a relationship has been established. These range from two to four in number and usually begin on the right side of the face before alternating from cheek to cheek. Rarely do the lips actually touch the skin in these “kisses,” however, although the cheeks do make contact. Handshakes are also given and should be firm with direct eye contact.

In the streets of larger cities, both women and men tend to flirt openly, with glances, stares, flattery, or invitations for a coffee. These attentions are generally innocuous and mostly unavoidable. French women typically respond either with playful banter or by simply ignoring the comments and walking on.

The French are very fond of hearing and expressing opinions and will expect you to not be shy in voicing yours. In France you are seen as a person with your own feelings, emotions, and ideas. Men may wonder what is wrong with you if you let them do all the talking and refuse to let them know what you are thinking. There is still some chauvinism present in the minds of French males, though. Women are viewed as equals in many ways but are still believed to be called to certain roles in life. For example, in a marriage a woman is expected to take care of the day-to-day tasks such as cooking, housework, and child care, while the man concentrates on tasks such as gardening or do-it-yourself projects.

Autonomy and Leadership

Legally, women have the same basic rights as men. They can travel freely both within and out of the country, can own their own property and businesses, run for political office, and so on. In reality, though, women rarely become the decision makers in society, hold very little political power, and are far less likely to be paid as well or hold the same level of managerial and executive positions as men. While in France, you should have little to no trouble negotiating, delegating, or supervising in the pursuit of business.