Career Women: the French vs the American Model

Laetitia@Work #34

Hi everyone,

It’s year two of Covid, but it’s also year two of the Shecession (remember I wrote a whole newsletter about the Shecession back in June 2020). As the British Covid variant is becoming dominant on the European continent, there are more and more reasons to be worried: the variant is suspected of making vaccines less effective and it is much more transmissible between children. And you know what that means, don’t you? It means that it will be awhile before schools, kindergarten and all childcare facilities can function normally.

I’m personally concerned about the threat of this British variant for schools reopening. In Bavaria, schools were expected to reopen mid-February but it’s now really possible they won’t. Unlike millions of mothers, I’m not too worried about my own ability to work from home with children because mine are old enough not to need me every second. I’m mostly worried about what the absence of a social life will do to their mental health (and mine).

But globally the reduced possibilities to outsource child care outside the home has inflicted a severe penalty on female careers. Not only have women lost many more jobs than men (in December in the USA, women accounted for 100% of jobs lost!), but a record number of them left the workforce only because of a lack of childcare. Hundreds of thousands of women with high-level jobs abandoned their careers to look after a child (or a parent), even lawyers, accountants, managers, professors and engineers with lucrative jobs! 

Many of these career women weren’t made redundant by their employers. They just left. This is a disaster for the economy as a whole (and tax revenues), but it’s also a disaster for the women concerned: as time passes, it will get harder and harder for them to get back to their lucrative careers. They may get back to work, but they will have missed promotions, opportunities and tons of revenues. The gender gap is widening dramatically.

My newsletter today is focused on those career women who leave the workforce, and the difference between US women and French women in that regard 💡👇

Is “opting out” really a choice?

That’s not an easy question to answer. Obviously female college graduates have a degree of choice that’s higher than non graduates. Obviously many women choose willingly to abandon a job they don’t like and spend more time at home. The phrase “opting out” implies it’s just “choice”. But it isn’t entirely or there wouldn’t be such stark differences between developed countries. 

Right now, the pandemic is making it painfully clear that it’s overwhelmingly NOT A CHOICE. The 2 million US women who “opted out” of their careers since the beginning of the pandemic felt they had no other option (and that’s without counting those women who were fired from their jobs, mostly in proximity services). It isn’t complicated really: where there’s no affordable child care, women tend to stay at home more. As this CNBC article explains: 

There are a lot of people who [have] reached their tipping point (... ) many women who have left the workforce since the start of the pandemic feel like ‘I can’t be caregiver, worker and teacher. I can’t do all of these things.’

To move the needle forward on more women re-entering the job market (...) there needs to be a federal child-care relief package that will help child-care businesses stay afloat during this time and help employees of these businesses, who are predominantly women, stay financially secure.

👉 I wrote about the “architecture of choice” in a previous newsletter titled “Why focusing on equal pay for equal work is a mistake”

The “architecture of choice” depends on the affordability of child care, the quality of public services, a country’s cultural definition of maternity (and parenthood), the tax system (and whether or not there are tax incentives for a parent to leave work), and a number of other things.

So obviously there are strong differences between countries. More women opt out of the workforce when they become mothers in the US than they do in France. More women work part time in the UK than in France. And nearly one in two female workers work part time in Germany.

👉 I wrote about the “plight of Germany’s female workers” in a previous newsletter.

In short, women have a bit more of a choice in France or in Denmark than they do in the US. And guess what? When women really have a choice, more often than not they choose to work rather than stay at home, even when they have children.

French vs American career women

This weekend I read this fantastic book by a French woman who focused on exactly that subject of career women leaving their high-level corporate jobs. She was a big-shot corporate lawyer for ten years before she too “opted out”. For a long time she saw this as a personal failure. If so many successful women leave power jobs in corporations and firms and (sometimes) cede power back to men, then it’s no wonder progress on gender equality is so slow!

But at some point she realised there was another (much more positive) way to look at it. She interviewed dozens of women like her (accountants, consultants, lawyers and the like) and discovered there was a different feminist narrative that could be put forward.

Her name is Céline Alix and her book Merci mais non merci (“Thanks but no thanks”) will be released in France next week (it’s not often that I get to read books before their release date because my to read list is so long that the books I receive from publishers often have to wait until long after the release date… but this one caught my attention).

Merci mais non merci focuses on these highly successful power women who (disappointingly) “give up” their job. “Opting out” is quite common in France too, notably when these women become mothers (but there are also non parents among them). But, she writes, there is a huge difference between French opters out and their American counterparts (and I might add, their German counterparts too):

I then realised that there was a fundamental difference between American and French women: while the former become stay-at-home mothers when they leave their careers, the latter all continue to work, most often in the same field, but under different conditions. In France, women who abandon the classic model of success do not "go home", they can’t imagine not participating in the great creative enterprise that is the world of work. They simply choose to organise their own professional world, this time starting from their own needs and according to standards, rhythms and values that suit them better.

My point here is that the sum of all these women leaving positions of power to work differently does not constitute a series of isolated “accidents” or a lack of female professional ambition. It is a massive social phenomenon that foreshadows tomorrow's model of social success, which will be based on modern, unifying values (...) the new ecosystem put in place by these women is based on sorority, more porous work- spaces and time and the pursuit of meaning.

French opters out set up their own companies, become freelancers or work for smaller companies led by women. Often they choose to work with other women. They find that they can liberate themselves from corporate politics and presenteeism. According to Céline, the fact that more and more successful women leave their corporate jobs doesn’t have to be regarded as something negative.

Let’s redefine power and ambition

The positive feminist narrative Céline offers is that these women are actually creating a new work system that’s based on values and standards that they get to define themselves. These women made it in a system that was entirely designed by and for men, and in the end, they said, “thanks but no thanks” and went on to make their own thing. Successful women now have enough resources to create their own system. 

Ultimately, hopefully, the old system and the new one can converge. As traditional management, presenteeism, male harassment and chauvinism, discrimination, power games, individualism, and corporate politics eventually evolve, everyone (men too) can espouse better values and work more purposefully. 

I’m always very irritated when I hear that women don’t have ambition. Perhaps it’s just that they don’t have one particular type of ambition, defined at a certain time, exclusively by men, and that constantly uses war metaphors. If ambition means wanting to kill the competition or slaughter a rival, then I’m not ambitious either.

The same is true of the definition of power (about which there are some compelling pages in Merci mais non merci). As Mary Beard wrote in Women &  Power: A Manifesto (I’ve mentioned this book a few times in this newsletter, and Céline Alix also quotes Beard in her book!):

You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure.

We have to be more reflective about what power is, what it is for, and how it is measured. To put it another way, if women are not perceived to be fully within the structures of power, surely it is power that we need to redefine rather than women?

🇩🇪 😷 We are still in lockdown. Nothing new to report from Bavaria. The number of Covid cases is no longer going up… but it isn’t decreasing fast enough. And the nastier Covid variants are coming 😨

🚀 For Nouveau Départ we’ve recorded new podcasts, among which: Pandémie et démographie, Pour en finir avec l'opposition public/privéUne autre approche du capital-risque, Diversité : les médias français à la traîneGameStop : la révolution sur les marchés financiers, Pandémie et stress : un ulcère collectif ? … Subscribe to Nouveau Départ!

👩‍💻 For Welcome to the Jungle, I wrote quite a lot of new articles: Balance Ta Startup : le management toxique touche-t-il plus les startups ?, Les quotas, ça marche ? Les 5 leçons de la loi Copé-Zimmermann, On ne peut pas toujours invoquer le sens pour justifier la maltraitanceNina Goswami, celle qui change le monde depuis la BBC

📺 I’ll do a webinar with Nexxworks titled “Bringing reflection home” (in 🇬🇧): this episode invites the futurist in you: how do you cultivate an innovation mindset, shape your abilities to react to change or deal with ambiguity? How to persevere in never settling for the status-quo? Learn how to spot innovation triggers and trends, master how to act upon your Day After Tomorrow and develop new ways of thinking.” Join us live on February 9, at 4pm CET.

📺 I’ll do another webinar about the future of work with NEXT on February 18 (in 🇬🇧) “When it comes to the future of work, the current crisis amplifies and accelerates opportunities and threats long in the making. It is accelerating the transition between the old and the new economic paradigms.” Join us live on February 18th, 2021, at 12:30 pm CET!  

🎙️ There’s a new Building Bridges podcast to listen to! 🇬🇧 What we need to flourish in this century with (amazing) Hilary Cottam 🤩 (also on Apple Podcasts) 🎧 Subscribe to Building Bridges if you want to receive my next podcast in your mailbox.

🎧 I was invited to record a podcast (in 🇫🇷 ) with Valentine Gatard who launched a new podcast called New Prana, “le podcast qui explore la vision holistique de soi, des autres, du monde, et comment cela s'incarne dans le futur du travail.”


  • 🚸 Anxiety’s Been off the Chart, Mary Harris, Slate, January 2021: “They’re missing out on some very key developmental opportunities, things that help them grow into the human beings they’re going to be eventually. And there are all these trials and errors that you’re supposed to experience that they’re not exposed to, just in the balancing of relationships and the conflicts that arise (…) And the fact that our students are so isolated—will they become so comfortable with being isolated that they don’t even know the importance of community because they’ve never experienced it?”

  • 😓 The tyranny of work, Jamie McCallum, Aeon, January 2021: “Widespread anxiety about a diminished work ethic is confounding when considered against the actual data on how much time Americans spend working. The hours of all wage and salary workers rose 13 per cent from 1975 to 2016, a total of about five extra weeks per year. And there’s evidence that those of us still working through the pandemic are putting in longer hours than we were before. In addition to long hours, workers suffer from irregular schedules, volatile by design, that change at their employers’ whims.”  

  • 🏠 The Millennials and Zoomers Now Living With Parents, by the Numbers, Marker Editors, Medium, September 2020: “52%That’s the share of 18- to 29-year-old Americans living with their parents (…) It’s the first time since the Great Depression that a majority of young adults are living with Mom or Dad (…) Living with parents became the most common living arrangement for 18- to 34-year olds back in 2014, surpassing living with a romantic partner for the first time in more than 130 years. It’s one of the many long-simmering trends that has been accelerated by Covid-19.”

Stay safe! I look forward to hearing from you 💌