Let's just make it 50/50!

Let's just make it 50/50!

Hi everyone,

I hope you’re all holding up well. I expect this winter will be taxing for many of us. As a work-from-home mother with homeschooled children, I am beginning to understand why Covid is pushing so many millions of women out of the workforce. I’m so glad I’m not an employee who has to report to her manager! At least as a self-employed worker I can set my own priorities. But even when you can set your own priorities, time isn’t elastic ⏲️

This week I’d like to share a few thoughts about quotas in the corporate world and the 50:50 Project at the BBC. For my Building Bridges Podcast, I recently interviewed Nina Goswami, the BBC’s Creative Diversity Lead and its “50:50” lead evangelist.

🎧 You can listen to my conversation with Nina Goswami about “the power of the BBC’s ‘50:50’ Project” by using the player above ☝️ or, if you prefer, on Apple Podcasts or Spotify (and why not seize this opportunity to listen to other Building Bridges podcasts?)

sliced avocados on top of brown wooden chopping board in top view photography

Twenty years ago (I was young and silly), I did not support the idea of quotas. Like a lot of French “universalists”, I was convinced it’s not “meritocratic”. “Who cares if the person is man or woman, so long as they’re the best for the job?” But a lot has changed since the early 2000s…and I’m now convinced there can be no change without quotas.

This week marks the 10th anniversary of a French law that imposes gender quotas in corporate boards. You know what the main lesson is from those 10 years? It’s simple enough: quotas work. France ranks #1 in the world when it comes to female representation in boards. If only there were quotas in other institutions so power could be shared more evenly!

The BBC’s 50:50 Equality Project and the conversation I had with Nina provides me additional food for thought in that regard 💡👇

Quotas is the corporate world: 10 years of “Copé-Zimmermann”

Nearly twenty years ago, in 2003, Norway became the first country in the world to impose a gender quota to raise the share of women on their boards to 40 percent. I remember it quite well because I remember reading so many articles discussing the very principle of quotas. At the time, most if not all French feminists were dead set against quotas. Among them, Elisabeth Badinter was the most vocal of all. I must confess that I too was a “universalist” feminist back then, probably because I was an idealist…

👉 If you want to read more about the old fight between “universalist” and “essentialist” feminists, read my previous newsletter titled “What kind of feminist are you?”

The arguments against gender quotas were roughly these:

  1. Quotas are unmeritocratic because you have to select less qualified people to meet them.

  2. Women are not a special “category”. They’re just people. Why distinguish them from men?

  3. Women don’t need protection. Those of them who succeed because of quotas will be seen as second-rate. It’s basically demeaning.

Today many more feminists, including French ones, have learnt to counter these three arguments. Even in France, more and more people are now open to the idea of quotas. It’s less of a taboo. As for me, I’ve become the strongest advocate of quotas. Indeed the terms of the debate have evolved very rapidly.

After fast progress of gender equality in the corporate world in the 70s and 80s, things began to stall in the late 1990s. You could no longer argue that progress towards equality was inevitable. Also behavioural economics became more and more mainstream in the 2000s and 2010s, particularly after the two Nobel Prizes of D. Kahneman (2002) and R. Thaler (2017), and there was more and more talk of cognitive biases and irrational decisions. Last but not least, with the fast rise of economic inequalities, it became harder and harder to argue that our economy and our corporations were meritocratic.

So we developed arguments to counter the quota critics:

  1. Who are you kidding? There is no meritocracy in corporations and politics. If only there were half as many mediocre women as there are mediocre men in power! In fact, studies show quotas actually increase the competence of politicians and executives by leading to the displacement of mediocre men. (Many great books have recently been published to question the “tyranny of merit”, as Michael Sandel put it). The carapace of ‘merit’ has only inoculated the winners from shame and reproach.”

  2. The universalist argument may be philosophically tenable, but “universality” has historically always been defined by men. In fact, our very definition of what a powerful person should be was defined by men. As long as it’s defined by men and for men only, how can we even know what universal really is? I believe our definition of what it means to be human will be enriched (and more universal!) if we can hear more diverse human voices. We could also review our definition of power and leadership while we’re at it.

  3. They may seem demeaning at the beginning, but very soon it’s quite obvious quotas don’t lead to more mediocrity. As all examples and studies show they actually lead to more competence. After a few years, there’s no stigma anymore. In fact, they may not be necessary anymore after a generation. When there’s a large enough “pipeline” of women and men to recruit from at all levels, what if a true meritocracy became possible?

So 10 years ago, a law named after two members of Parliament (J.F. Copé and M.J. Zimmermann) was passed in France (under President Sarkozy) to push corporations to “seek a balanced representation of women and men” in boards. At the time, in 2011, there were less than 10% of women on the boards of directors of major listed companies in France. The law provides that the proportion of directors of each gender may not be less than 40%.

In just a few years, boards of directors and supervisory boards became more gender diverse. From 23.7% in 2012, the proportion of women in boards rose to 34% in 2015, and almost 44% today. France now ranks #1 in this area, ahead of all other EU counties like Italy and Sweden (36%), Finland (35%) and Germany (34%).

Of course this law had little if any effect on the diversity of CEOs and executive committees. There are still too few female chief executives in France. And economic power (and capital) is still disproportionaltely in the hands of men. But the tenth anniversary of the Copé-Zimmermann law makes me somewhat optimistic. More and more people advocate for faster change towards gender equality (and diversity in general). And quotas are not taboo anymore.

Visibility and representation: why all media (and corporations) should imitate the BBC

A couple of months ago I read an article about the BBC’s 50:50 Project and how it could inspire the corporate world. I was in awe. The article was titled “What Companies Who Want More Diversity Can Learn From the BBC” (Behavioral Scientist). It made the case for better representation in media, and a radical change of method.

It also permanently changed how journalists approach their work. Crucially, starting the project was not only about social justice; it was about producing better journalism. “A plurality of perspectives gives us journalists the best chance to succeed in our aims of reporting, explaining, and analyzing the world around us effectively”. “We needed a change of mindset so that we thought of equal representation as non-negotiable, in the same way that we think of political balance, high production values, or hitting deadlines.” Audiences, especially those on the younger side, place a higher value on content that reflects their world.

So I contacted Nina Goswami on Twitter. As Creative Diversity Lead at the BBC, she is the lead evangelist of the project. Because she must see it as one of her missions to let other people know more about 50:50, she accepted my invitation to do a podcast (for which I’m very grateful. Thank you, Nina!)

What’s fascinating is that what started as a small experiment in one team of journalists at the BBC ended up being this huge project involving 600 teams and dozens of corporate partners. What’s happening at the BBC proves that visibility matters enormously (yes, role models!), that counting makes organisations accountable, that trying to give more people a voice will make you more creative, and that image has an impact on reality.

The conversation I had with Nina is full of convincing arguments for more quotas and data. I recommend you listen to the whole thing ☝️ If I had to select only one passage, it would be the one about the business case:

Then there’s the business element. And I think this is the most powerful one for people who feel that there’s no need to increase women's representation. We as women make up 50 percent of the world's population, actually, 51 percent of the world's population. And if you are not reflecting women on your content, then you are not likely to be attracting women to your content. 

One of the really interesting things that we've seen over the past couple of years that 50:50 has been in existence is that people are noticing an increase in women's representation on BBC content, and that's having a really positive effect. 32 percent of women aged 24 to 35 are actually consuming more BBC online content than they have ever before.

We've seen in our target audience because we're trying to attract more young people to the BBC (16-to-24-year olds) that 40 percent of them are enjoying content more as a result. So if they're enjoying content more, they are likely to be returning to BBC content. Even if you don't care about women's representation, there’s still a business case for doing it.

👉 The subject of women in media has long been one of my obsessions. A few months ago, I dedicated a newsletter to the subject: “Women and the future of media.”

🇩🇪 😷 Germany has strengthened its lockdown measures. The pandemic is showing no sign of abating. The safer (more expensive) FFP2 masks have been made mandatory in public places and stores in Bavaria. Schools will remain closed at least until mid-February. We’re all learning to make the most of MS Teams, which is the tool used in Bavarian schools for Distanzunterricht (there’s no doubt Microsoft is making the most of this pandemic!)

🚀 For Nouveau Départ we’ve recorded new podcasts, among which: 🇩🇪 La CDU et la succession d'Angela MerkelNotre vision de l’âge tueL'état de la démocratie américaine, En finir avec l'âgisme … Subscribe to Nouveau Départ!

👩‍💻 For Welcome to the Jungle, I wrote quite a lot of new articles: 🇬🇧 The professional is personal: you, your partner and your career, Innovation : voici comment faire de l'incertitude votre alliée, Et si vous faisiez émerger des leaders au lieu de former des managers ?, Carrière : pourquoi l'âge ne compte plus, Absentéisme : les « abus » ne sont pas le problème aujourd’hui !

🎙️ There are now 7 Building Bridges podcasts to listen to! 🇬🇧 You can find all of them on Apple PodcastsSubscribe to Building Bridges to receive the next one in your mailbox 🎧

📺 I’ll moderate a webinar for freelancers about #stress management with Coworkees. My two guests, Dr Lavinia Ionita & Marielle Frick, have a lot to say about stress! Join us next Tuesday (26/01) at 9:30am CET 🇫🇷 Café Freelance : Mieux gérer son stress ☕ 🧘


  • 🇬🇧 London population set to decline for first time since 1988, Richard Partington, The Guardian, January 2021: “A decline in London’s population would represent a return to the years in the middle of the 20th century when London’s population collapsed after the second world war, as people moved away from the bombed-out and blitzed city for a life in the leafier home counties or other parts of the country, dropping from 8.6 million in 1939 to 6.8 million in the 1980s.”

  • 😨 Is Remote Work Making Us Paranoid?, Jessica Grose, The New York Times, January 2021: “Employees are asking themselves questions like: Is that Slack message unanswered because I’m getting fired, or because my boss is dealing with remote schooling her kid? Did that joke land flat on that video call because it was a bad joke, or am I falling out of favor? Small moments are becoming amplified…”  

  • 😷 Once you and your friends are vaccinated, can you quit social distancing?, Sigal Samuel, Vox, January 2021: “The best way to set realistic expectations around what life will look like in 2021 is to think of it in 3 stages. Stage 1 is what you can safely do once you & your close friends or family are vaccinated. Stage 2 is what you can safely do once your city or state has reached herd immunity, where enough people are protected against infection that the virus can’t easily spark new outbreaks. Stage 3 is what you can do once herd immunity is reached internationally. (Note that there’s a good chance we won’t reach that last stage in 2021.)”

Until Spring, try and stay safe! In the meantime, let’s make it 50/50, shall we? 🖖

The future of work, with a feminist perspective