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Treatment of women in the workplace comes to the fore in France

She shied away from the term “sexual harassment,” preferring “seductive pressure.”

“Women can’t talk about the seductive pressure that men put on women, because it is a taboo in France,” said the woman, pausing between sentences. A former company manager, she, perhaps tellingly, wished to remain anonymous. “As women managing directors, we’ve all been confronted with it.”

As she spoke, she began to worry that her comments would create “generalizations” about France. She was only one person, and was sorry to be wasting a reporter’s time, she added, with a tight smile.

The recent furor over the arrest and release of French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn on sexual assault charges in New York pushed the issue of the treatment of women in the workplace to the fore in France, where the sexual peccadilloes of even the highest elected officials have long been kept out of the headlines.

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On Thursday, Strauss-Kahn is expected to meet before a judge with a female journalist who has accused him of seeking to sexually assault her in 2003. Though the woman, Tristane Banon, first publicly discussed the incident years ago, she did not make an official complaint until after the former International Monetary Fund chief was arrested in New York in May.

Defenders of Strauss-Kahn — many of them men — have tended to brush off the New York scandal as the result of uptight “Anglo-Saxon” attitudes on sex. But more French women have begun speaking, often hesitantly, of a pervasive atmosphere of sexism, and of a widespread fear of rocking the boat.

“Women don’t want to be part of this category that says there’s a problem,” said Genevieve Fraisse, a philosopher focusing on women’s studies at the National Center for Scientific Research, a government-funded organization.

“In France you have to be on the side of the seducer,” she said. “The good side … because power is masculine.”

As prominent women in a variety of fields talked about what the Strauss-Kahn case had meant to them, their reactions marked divisions within French society, and even within the country’s ever-evolving, diverse feminine half.

“We are shocked by the way that a woman can be used as tools. How we can judge women by their flesh. But it’s not just in politics, it happens everywhere,” said Nora Berra, secretary of state and second in command to the labor, employment and health minister.

Although women make up a fast-growing segment of France’s workforce, they continue to earn less than men — nearly 18% less in 2008 — and they hold disproportionately fewer top jobs. According to the most recent statistics, from 2008, published this year by the Ministry for Solidarity and Social Cohesion, women made up about 30% of business managers, and 17.1% of chief executives in private industry were women.

Legislative initiatives to improve gender parity in government and, more recently, in the private sector have spurred an increasingly mainstream dialogue about the need for more women leaders. A new law will ensure that within six years, 40% of board members in large businesses are women.

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But when it comes to legal safeguards against sexual harassment, protections can be difficult to enforce. In French law, sexual harassment is defined loosely as being a form of harassment committed “with the goal of obtaining sexual favors.” And victims must prove the intentions of their aggressors, a task women’s rights groups say can be very difficult. The groups also note that many cases of sexual harassment are not necessarily aimed at obtaining favors, but can simply be instances of intimidation.

Conversations with women kept boomeranging back to the so-called taboo. Sexual harassment happens, they said, but “it’s hard to talk about.”

“In France, there’s gastronomy, there are monuments, and there’s the French relationship between men and women,” said Marilyn Baldeck, head of the European Assn. Against Violence Against Women at Work, which provides legal counsel for victims of sexual harassment.

“Very often we are told that we are disturbing a French model that makes the so-called glory of France. These are very strong cultural values. But we say that French culture is used as a pretext to act with impunity, and against the law.”

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Her group has been pushing for a clearer legal definition of sexual harassment and preventive education about it at work.

“But they take us for crazies, who, through our actions, want to shake up the wonderful relationship between men and women at work in France,” Baldeck said.

Some women, especially among younger generations, have no tolerance for sexual harassment, and say it creates professional barriers for women.

“There is this expectation of conforming to this idea that we have a culture where it’s not as strict about relationships between men and women,” Isabelle Pinard, 30, an editor for the Review of Philosophical and Theological Sciences, said in reference to “ordinary sexism” and harassment.

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“But this shouldn’t just fly over your head, because it’s not professional, and it’s distracting, because it calls attention to a lot of things that are not why you are there. More and more young workers in France, having worked elsewhere, feel that way.”

And there were those who seemed to be somewhere in the middle, acknowledging that sexual pressure could create difficulties.

“You have to defend yourself. And you don’t defend yourself by the law. There is no strict rule as in the U.K., or as in the U.S. But you have to know how to defend yourself,” said Nathalie Tournyol du Clos, 46, head of administration and finances for the Economic, Social and Environmental Council, a government body that helps develop policy in those areas.

“Every woman reacts differently. It’s true that we are a Latin country, and well, my boss may notice if I’m dressed nicely — and that’s all. But what we don’t like is when it becomes sexist,” she said.

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Natacha Henry, who wrote about sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace in her book, “Les Mecs Lourds,” which roughly translates as “Sleazy Guys,” said, “It is part of the glass ceiling, because all the time these women spend thinking, ‘Oh my God! Do I say something? Or will I lose my job? Not get invited to lunch meetings?’ It’s done to put down their intelligence, to show, ‘I am in power, and you are weak.’”

No reliable national statistics exist on the extent of sexual harassment here. Baldeck’s group said it logs about 400 calls annually from victims, and that in many of those cases women believe they have been sexually harassed, when in fact what they describe has already tipped into physical aggression and attempted rape. The harassment before the physical attack is usually considered too mundane for most victims to report, the group said. Many women are also not clear on what sexual harassment is, Baldeck said.

A former ambassador spoke with particular punch on the issue. Asking to remain anonymous because of the “sensitivity” of her position within a government body, she offered to be identified as a woman who had “a brilliant career in diplomacy, because it’s true.”

The woman, in her 60s, broke down life at the government’s various ministries this way:

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“You have the courtesan who plays with her attraction, her sex appeal to climb … and there are a lot of them, oh how there are a lot! And then there are women who want to get there through their competence and motivation, and there are many. I’d say they are the majority. And those, at one point or another, hit a glass ceiling.

“I worked for five or six ministers directly. They are all womanizers. Except for one,” she said, citing strings of mistresses who would be asked to set up their desks right in their bosses’ offices, where they would soon be replaced by others.

“Me, working for ministers, I never changed gears. But others fall. Because they think it could be favorable for their careers,” she said. “And yes, that happens all the time.”

She said men were afraid to have women in positions above them. “It’s a terrible reevaluation for men to be directed by a woman. Spontaneously, he will have problems with it. It’s his ego.”

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Well, if that’s the case, how will the glass ceiling be broken?

She squinted back.

“You’re right,” she said. “We must fight.”

Lauter is a special correspondent.


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