To achieve the objectives set by the Rixain law, let’s start by changing the perception of power

Some companies are finding it difficult to apply various measures of the French Rixain law (loi Rixan), of which the primary aim is to improve gender balance on corporate management boards. The objectives set by this regulation are all the more difficult to achieve as organisations are reporting a rise in ‘opting out’[1]. The ‘opt out' phenomenon sees women eligible for top positions choosing not to apply for more strategic roles due to negative perceptions of what those roles entail. But what if the perception and image of power had a major role in its appeal to women and their decision to opt out?

Women continue to be excluded from power

Power, whether economic, political or domestic, was created by men and historically based upon stereotypical male attributes: striving for leadership, having a thick skin, building camaraderie and refraining from 'feminine' behaviour. Consequently, qualities such as sensitivity, empathy and attentiveness have unjustly been considered incompatible with someone exercising power. Yet contrary to popular belief, men and women have the same level of ambition, and most importantly, the same predisposition to leadership, which does not require masculinity to be effective.

The historically masculine concept of leadership has naturally dominated corporate practices, since they were created by and for men. No matter how many years go by, the norms, practices and archetypes of the ideal leader remain unchanged. Only recently have these ideals been called into question. In recruitment for example, employee referrals between men are still common practice, especially in top management. Evaluation criteria for employee performance also remain unchanged. Certain skills that are supposedly necessary to wield power remain overvalued in 2022, as they are legacies of outdated historical and social constructs. These skills include risk-taking, adopting an offensive or even warlike approach to leadership, solitary decision-making, and more.

On top of  this unequal treatment lies a managerial culture that remains unaddressed and far too unfavourable toward the professional advancement of women. For example, the lack of inclusiveness in meetings or the ‘very French’ concept of ‘presenteeism’ sees men more likely to conform to such culture than women. Studies have proven the former by finding that women are given less speaking time and are interrupted more frequently than their male counterparts. Together with the glass ceiling, these examples (and more) illustrate the paradox of an underrepresentation of women in leadership despite their high level of ambition. Given the current perception of power, how can we expect women to want to wield it in such a way that they apply for leadership roles as much as men do?

Rethink the perception of power to make it more appealing

There are two drivers to achieving the overarching objective of the Rixain law, namely accelerating gender equality in economic and professional spheres. The first driver consists of redefining power in and of itself. It is imperative to undo the completely outdated perception of power, which is often embodied by authoritarian figures insensitive to the needs of professionals in the workplace. Organisations require individuals who excel in attentiveness, empathy, humility, communication and cooperation. Any good leader should possess these essential skills. As it turns out, these are skills more widely employed by women thanks to, or as a consequence of, the gendered demands they face from an early age.

This is why companies must be aware of biases in order to eradicate them, and deeply question their often age-old practices. For instance, it may be relevant to broaden evaluation criteria on employee performance to include qualities now recognised as beneficial, if not essential, to management and leadership – and we are already starting to see some very important organisations implementing these criteria. In 2022, it is no longer up to women to conform to companies, but for companies to adapt to women in the same way they have adapted to men. In a way, it’s about making the company ‘bilingual’.

Furthermore, we must normalise the fact that both women and men leaders have personal lives, imperfections and doubts, which they cannot simply hide in the background. Moreover, leadership teams must become collectives with a modern and inclusive image, and no longer ‘boy clubs’. All this would make positions of power more attractive.

A second important driver that could facilitate the implementation of the Rixain law is rethinking the harsh way we often communicate on the reality of holding power within an organisation. How common is it to hear a leader share the pleasure, satisfaction and interest felt, on a personal level, in the exercise of their role? It is important that men and women of power measure the influence and impact of their words, both internally and externally. Leaders must keep in mind their responsibility as role models, whether they like it or not, as they are often under scrutiny by a diverse intergenerational audience. It is no longer a matter of leaders communicating only on figures and strategic roadmaps, but also highlighting the positive aspects of power for those who hold it.

Being part of top management does not mean partaking in a series of meetings from morning to night under constant, inhumane pressure. It means having the opportunity to take part in exciting debates, joining stimulating circles, enjoying wide-ranging freedom, and above all, serving the general interest to build a better world.

In addition to breaking the glass ceiling, we must urgently rethink how we exercise power and how leaders embody and communicate it. These are two imperatives to achieving gender balance within corporate management boards, and in turn, implementing the Rixain law. 

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This article was first published in French in Les Echos.

[1] A study by Bureau Veritas, Safran and the Observatory for Gender Balance, conducted by BVA between January 31 and February 22, 2022.