Accelerating Gender Balance: Interview with an Expert

Accelerating Gender Balance: Interview with an Expert

Marie-Christine Mahéas, Head of Mazars Center for Diversity & Inclusion in Paris and Coordinator of the think tank Observatoire de la Mixité, has studied and supported gender balance for 18 years. We recently read the book she co-directed, Remixer la mixité, and she accepted to answer some questions for The A Effect.

Trends That Affect Parity

The A Effect: What are the current issues affecting gender diversity in companies?

Marie-Christine Mahéas: There used to be a lot of talk about women’s leadership, as though women needed to be repaired. Now, the approach to accelerating the achievement of parity is much more precise. Why is this? Because it’s a topic that directly affects more and more people. Here are three things that stand out right now.

  • A worrying resurgence of sexism in France. The Haut Conseil à l’Égalité entre les Femmes et les Hommes, which advises the French government on issues of gender balance, recently published a report on the state of sexism. More and more young men perceive certain kinds of sexism as “normal”. For example, 40% of men compared to 27% of women say that it’s normal for women to stop working to look after their children.
  • The role of men, especially in parenting, is more relevant than ever [with paternity leave extended in 2021 to 25 days instead of 11]. The more that men are involved in parenting, the more it relieves the burden of motherhood. Because even today, the mental load is mostly carried by women, and it’s difficult in a senior leadership position to find work/life balance. At Mazars, we have even increased the duration of funded paternity leave to the same length as maternity leave, i.e. 2.5 months!
  • Mentoring: a solution that is working better and better. As part of my work at the Observatoire de la mixité, 17 men in management form a “think-tank” type club. These men have each chosen to mentor one high-potential women from a fellow club member’s company. For example, one CEO is mentoring a woman on his colleague’s Executive Committee. It’s really seen as a way of helping women to take the final step, the most difficult one, of getting onto an executive committee or becoming the head of a subsidiary of the group, and so on. Despite some doubts I had about mentorship, I’ve observed positive effects on both the mentee and the mentor, as long as it is done properly. This means giving real responsibility to both the mentor and the mentee.

Mentoring: A Tool to “Fix” Women?

The A Effect: When it comes to mentorship for women, do you think it’s about “repairing” women, as though they were missing something?

No, Women Are Not Broken

No, it’s not a repair as if we were talking about something broken. On one hand, it’s a catch-up process to promote more women, to give a chance to more women, to restore a “mathematical” balance within management. On the other hand, there are differences between women and men related to a type of education. These are not innate flaws, only differences. For example, women are generally less likely to speak up during meetings. Why is this? A study was conducted in kindergarten classes: little girls were encouraged to speak up less often than little boys. This is just one example, but it’s easy to imagine that 20 years later, women would generally have a harder time speaking up.

A Tool to Give Confidence

In another study done by the Observatoire de la mixité, we observed that fewer women than men applied for internal promotions. The reason? Men respond quickly (within the deadline), while women take more time to apply because they ask more questions (they consult their spouses, a friend, a colleague). Women also tend to self-assess less positively (than men) in annual reviews. Taken together, these are not flaws that need to be fixed. They simply come from a type of upbringing that holds women back from obtaining promotions. Mentoring then becomes a confidence-building tool for the mentee, to encourage her, to open doors, and to help her understand the rules of the game, which remain male.

The Myth of the Provider Persists

The A Effect: Right. So, do men also feel the backlash from their masculine upbringing?

Marie-Christine Mahéas: Less than women, but yes. As the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has said, “male privilege is also a trap, […] imposed on every man by the duty to assert his manliness in all circumstances.” (Pierre Bourdieu, Masculine Domination. Trans. Richard Nice. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2001.) [In essence], men put a lot of pressure on themselves to succeed, because they’re told from a very young age that they’ll be financially responsible for their household. They have the pressure to succeed very quickly and ascend as vertically as possible, with all the side effects of violence and the sidelining of parenthood, which is experienced more by men.

But speaking of professional life, it’s women who are more impacted by these differences. And when I say differences, I’m not talking about stereotypes. That’s the trouble. As a manager, [you’ve got to walk] a fine line. On one side, you’re told to fight against stereotypes. One the other, you have to take differences into account. It can get confusing! It will take several more years still to [easily navigate between these two areas]. It’s important to continue working with these differences while fighting against stereotypes.

Concretely, How Can We Accelerate Parity?

Marie-Christine Mahéas: As it happens, the Observatory has just published a green paper, bringing together 6 tangible initiatives to accelerate workplace gender balance. The first is the manager’s commitment to gender balance. And step one of this initiative? Getting training for you and your team about stereotypes and biases!


To learn more about Marie-Christine Mahéas’ research, you can read her book

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