The idea there are not enough talented women to fill senior roles is “bulls***,” according to France’s labour minister.
Muriel Pénicaud, a member of French president Emmanuel Macron’s government, delivered the blunt message at the Davos summit of world leaders in Switzerland on Thursday.
She was speaking at a panel event on how countries and employers across the globe should push for gender equality at work and in positions of power.
The chair Fareed Zakaria, a CNN journalist, asked panelists about employers who said there was not enough female talent available and not enough qualified candidates applying for roles.
“It's full nonsense, or bullshit, to say there is no talent. They were hidden, just number two —doing the job but just not visible,” said Pénicaud, who previously held a senior HR role at French food giant Danone.
She said government action had proved necessary in France to “accelerate” the pace of change, adding that progress could also go into reverse.
She said there had been “no progress” in getting women onto boards a decade ago, before government quotas were set. “Today we have 43% [women on boards] in listed companies,” she said, higher than the quotas.
Pénicaud said her government had now forced many firms to publish figures for an “index of equality,” showing not only average pay by gender but also figures on pay rises and career progression.
Young people in France were starting to shun companies with poor records, she told the event, and she was “quite confident” of progress when firms next report in March.
“Most of the CEOs discovered there was a lot of discrimination in their companies. I don’t know any CEOs who wake up in the morning and say ‘I will discriminate against women,’ but there are a lot of micro-decisions from management, HR and self-esteem sometimes that [means] women don’t apply.
“Every day I meet companies that say it was a shock to realise.”
Jonas Prising, chair and CEO of US staffing giant ManpowerGroup (MAN), agreed it was “utter nonsense” to use the challenges of finding the right women as an excuse for female under-representation.
“It’s a matter of how badly you want it. The most important part is culture. You have to make it socially unacceptable not to have equal representation at all levels,” he said.
He said leaders, senior managers, and boards all had to have tackling gender inequality as a key aim for change to happen, highlighting progress at his own firm since he made it a priority six years ago.
“Our board is committed and holding me accountable for making these changes,” he said, adding that 45% of its board were now female.