In honour of International Women’s Day, Sylvie Goulard talks about women and their place in Europe in an interview with EURACTIV.fr.
After being an MEP from 2009 to 2017, Sylvie Goulard is now deputy governor of France’s central bank, where human resources are trying to bring in more women in a very male-dominated sector.
The Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement that followed raised hopes in the struggle for gender equality. Do you think this is also the case in Europe?
This is a subject in which the risk is of a movement similar to tides: the tide comes in and then goes out. Raising awareness is a positive thing, but we have to make sure that we don’t lose ground.
The European Commission recently promoted women to management positions. This is a positive step forward. But in appointment procedures, there are still not enough women. For competence to remain a central criterion, there must be a mixed pool of candidates (men and women). Good management of human resources consists of creating sustainable conditions for the emergence of such a pool.
Does the appointment of Juncker’s chief of staff, Martin Selmayr, as secretary-general of the Commission meet these criteria?
I will not comment on this. Generally, transparency is decisive for improving gender balance. Among the issues found in the European bodies, there is also the fixation with the nationality of candidates. The important thing is to make skills prevail over passports, or even in terms of originating from the “North” or the “South” of Europe. A person’s origins are not valid recruitment criteria, much less the prejudice that goes with them.
No matter how hard you look, there are no women at the head of the European institutions…
That is true, whether you are talking about the Parliament or the Commission. But if you appoint commissioners from among former ministers from countries where there are hardly any women in positions of power, inevitably there will be no women. That said, if we were to rank the current Commission, then I believe that the most powerful Commissioner is a woman: Margrethe Vestager.
Does the overrepresentation of men in the Institutions play into citizens’ disenchantment with Europe?
Citizens like to see themselves represented in their political institution, but you don’t see the same people in the metro and in positions of responsibility. There is still a lot to be done on gender equality but also in terms of the diversity of profiles in general. The gap between a diverse society and frozen political or administrative institutions gives rise to frustration. This isn’t easy as progress in gender equality also generates symmetrical frustrations: some populists are portraying men as victims.
I have encountered young men protesting a supposed positive discrimination in favour of women or minorities, which they found unjust. But is the current situation fair?
Luis de Guindos was recently appointed vice-president of the ECB, in the absence of any female candidates in spite of the prevalence of women at the head of the European Bank. Do you think this is normal?
I will not comment on the latest appointment in the ECB. But let me just remind you that the European Parliament has repeatedly called for more diversity, particularly in 2011, during the previous renewal of the Executive Board. It wanted to have candidates of both genders for each nomination. This requirement is also valid for the European Commission: if each member state puts forward a candidate without regard for the overall result, I don’t see how this can lead to gender equality.
In certain sectors such as finance, parity is still a long way off, especially in terms of boards of directors…
In finance, there is a particular bias, even if the number of female students in economics/finance is increasing. Then there is always a difference between the number of graduates you start with and the people appointed to executive positions. There are still very few women sitting on such boards.
However, when lawmakers intervened, as they did in France and Italy, to impose parity in executive boards, the situation improved. When incentives are not enough, you have to have the courage to impose quotas. Companies overall are quite satisfied because diversity is enriching.
Does inequality between men and women cause problems to companies?
When a company shows interest in the subject of the role of women, it starts taking another look at its recruitment and takes an interest in minorities and people with disabilities. It realises that diversity brings together different talents and improves performance. Therefore, in the end, it is not a struggle between men and women but a positive battle that needs to be lead together in favour of a society that is both fairer and more efficient.
Do you think the economy would fare better if women were given a greater role?
The OECD is clear on the impact of gender discrimination on growth: its report “Closing the gender gap” shows the positive impact on GDP that better use of available talent would have. Nowadays, women are more often employed in more vulnerable part-time jobs and are hit harder in the event of an economic downturn. The IMF, under Christine Lagarde, has also taken positions on the topic.
Have you yourself experienced such gender discrimination during your professional career?
I was lucky enough to get through the selection procedures for the top education institutions in France, which were a factor of social mobility and gender equality. While it can sometimes be difficult, it is unacceptable that our countries deprive themselves of women’s talents, there is, for example, a lack of women in mathematical and scientific courses for cultural reasons.
We live in countries with ageing populations, and we must use all the human resources available.
Would you advise your daughter to follow in your footsteps?
If there is one thing I learnt as a parent, it is not to make recommendations to your children. The best way to advocate women’s freedom is to let them make their own choices.
The effects of denouncing sexual harassment could still bring change for this generation and that is a good thing.
There is sexual abuse because power is held by a certain type of men. The access to power favours those who play the domination game, this can discourage women and men who refuse to accept such practices. This is what must be stopped; the abuse of power in general, the domination that leaves no room for others.
Are you optimistic about the effects of the #MeToo movement?
As nobody was listening to them, women had to accept things that are characterised as criminal offences, such as sexual harassment, molestation, rape. Letting people talk about it is a good thing if it leads to a change in behaviour and the restoration of the rule of law. But what was revealed in the film industry does not necessarily translate into all sectors of society: does anyone pay more attention now to women in more lowly positions in factories or supermarkets? This the main challenge. We should not let ourselves be lulled into a false sense of security.