Women in Postwar France: Women and Professional Life

Women at Work

In the 25 years following the war the number of French women in paid employment steadily declined. It was only from the 1960s onwards, and arguably only really in the 1970s, that this trend was reversed and the number of women entering the workforce actually increased. From 1945 to 1968 then, France went back to basics.

Of all French women over the age of 15 in 1962, 36.2% were economically active, a figure which rose to 38.7% by 1975. For women in the 22-55 year old age bracket over the same period the increase was higher rising from 42.3% to 53%. Yet this rise seem modest when compared to the period between 1975 and 1984 when the percentage of economically active women of 15 years old and upward rose from 18.7% to 68%. (Source: Enquêtes annuelles sur l'emploifor 1962, 1975 and 1984)

The increase in women going to work is partially explained by the growth of what in French is called le secteur tertiaire or what we would call the service sector, i.e. administration, commerce, insurance, catering, transport. The enormous increase in the proportion of married women in the 25-54 year old age group reflects this general trend. As regards age, the most active period is still 20-25 years and 40-45 years.

The service sector in France currently employs the highest proportion of women, some 47% of whom occupy posts in administration, commerce and catering. Around a fith of women occupy lower grade posts in teaching and social and public administration. Around 14.4% are workers in industry, more than three-quarters of whom are unskilled. The most female-dominated areas still appear to be the so-called caring professiosn - childminders, nurses, also secretaries - over 90% of people in these jobs are women - as well as jobs where no skills are required, for example, unskilled workers in the confectionary and other food industries. The most male-dominated areas - where around 90% of men are employed are building, mettalurgical, mechanical and electrical professions. There are still few women in the liberal professions (doctors, lawyers), in higher academic and managerial posts - cadres supérieurs - and very few company directors. There are some signs that the situation is beginning to improve as more and more women enter higher education, and in particular, the higher colleges of administration and commerce - the écoles supérieures.

The increase in the number of women entering the workforce can be explained in a number of ways: women's ability to control or reduce their period of maternity as a result of contraception, the family and children have ceased to have the direct impact on women's working patterns, women have become more desirous of financial independance and the psychological reason that work does indeed bring personal satisfaction. Although one should stress here that in France, just as much as in Great Britain, the economic factor is especially important to women who work whose husbands are unemployed.

As for salaries, France is not unusual in having a greater concentration of women in the poorest paid jobs and the lowest perceived grades of employment: low pay, low status, no future jobs in the service sector. It is also not a specifically French phenomenon that traditionally feminine jobs are also the lowest paid. However, as a result of consistent action from the 1970s onwards, on the part of trade unions and the Ministry of Women's Rights, the discrepancy between male and female salaries is showing some signs of narrowing. The disparity in average earnings of women and men still stood at 35% in 1984 and about 31% i 1988 (the most recent figure I have). As a result of the equal pay law introduced in December 1972, women's salaries rose more proportionately to men's and the gap between male and female average earnings was reduced between 1973 and 1975 by 2%. According to this law employers were obliged to pay men and women the same pay for the same work or for 'work of equal value'. However, the principle of `work of equal value' actually proved difficult to apply in practice because of the problem of comparing different places of work. In July 1983 however another law pertaining to professional equality was introduced with the aim of overcoming these shortcomings. Its set out first of all to define and clarify the concept of 'work of equal value' by listing four criteria: that the work should require the same professional knowledge and qualifications, the same experience, the same degree of responsibility and the same physical or mental effort. Women also benefited more than men from the decree of July 1975 concerning the minimum wage which in France is called le SMIC (salaire minimum interprofessionnel de croissance). Because around two-thirds of the total female workforce at that point were smicardes (recipients of the minimum wage) any rise in the minimum wage automatically favoured women. It is the one privilege of being in a poorly paid job. Fear of higher absenteeism is frequently used to cited as the main justification for women's lower rates of pay, the argument being that women are more likely to take paid maternity leave. In actual fact, according to statistics, the amount of money paid to women taking maternity leave is actually far less that that paid to men for illness.

In recent years there has been a tendency towards an increase in part-time work for women. In 1985 21.8% of women worked part-time compared to only 2.2% of men. In France this increase is due to the decline in the number of full-time jobs available and to new trends in working patterns.

Women and Education

One of the reasons frequently cited for women's poor salaries was that they had inferior skills, training and qualifications. However, women in France are now beginning to disprove this thesis. The proportion of women going to university compared to that of men increased from 46.4% in 1974 to 51.2% in 1984 and is continuing to rise. There has been a similar rise in all sections of higher education. Although there continues to be a marked preponderance of women doing the Baccalauréat A exam (the literary branch) there has been a noticable increase in women doing the B branch (economics) and a small increase in the C and D branches (respectively maths and science). Once at university, the overwhelming majority of women continue to study arts subjects (67.8%) but there has been an ncrease in women studying law, economics and medecine. Going higher up to the élitist and prestige grandes écoles supérieures (the equivalent of Oxbridge) more and more women are making it past the tight selection process athough the gap between men and women is still huge.

Since the legislation of 1972, measures have been taken to improve opportunities for women to take part in training programmes. There have also been strong drives by the major trade unions such as the CGT and the CFDT to improve access for women ot all posts at all levels. Moreover, the recent law of July 1983 considered training to be an integral part of women's struggle to gain higher professional status and sought to end discrimination in the selection of applicants for training courses. Since 1975 there has been a marked increase in training for women organized by state bodies. However, programmes financed by private companies trail far behind, with far more men attending courses than women. The larger the company, the more men tend to be preferred over women.

As for unemployment, again there are no surprises here. In France more women than men are unemployed. Indeed, women at present constitute 51% of the unemployed population. There are two main reasons here. Firstly, because of the traditioally greater flexibility of the female workforce - for flexibility here read part-time, contract work with little stability - it is usually the first to be hit by adverse economic conditions. The oil crisis of the early 1970's for example, affected French women more than French men. A second factor is women's overall tendency to have inferior qualifications and the concentration of women in unskilled jobs or in professional situations (e.g. typing pools) where they are unlikely to learn new skills. Because unemployment tends to hit the young the hardest - numerically at least - it is young women between 10 and 24 who are most affected. In addition, women are likely to wait longer before finding another job than men. For reasons already outlined, the highest rates of female unemployment are among unskilled factory workers, workers in agriculture, commerc and the service industries, since, generally, the lower the skills and qualifications, the higher the rate of unemployment. Thus, there tend to be extreme regional variations, according to the preponderance of particular industries in particular areas. Blackspots in female unemployment are centered in the north, which is, or rather was, predominantly industrial, and the south where there has been a recent decline in agriculture.

In conclusion it can be seen then that there are clear reasons for the more frequent loss of work amongst women as compared to men in France in this period. Firstly, it was seen that since more men are in permanent employment, they are more likely to be eligible for redundancy payment on dismissal. Women, on the other hand, who tend to be on shorter-term contract work, or in part-time jobs, are more likely to be dismissed without pay. Women then are a much easier, and less expensive target for dismissal than men in French companies.

To cite:
McNeill, T. (1998) 'Women and Professional Life' in Communiqué online http://eserve.org.uk/tmc/ [Accessed ]