Directors: 150 women to be recruited between now and 2017

35% of CAC (Compagnie des Agents de Change [French Institute of Stockbrokers]) 40 directors are women.

Les Echos | September 15, 2015

Those who have held executive positions are sought after.

There are only three: three chairwomen of the board in the SBF 120, and all on supervisory boards rather than boards of directors.  Vivienne Cox at Vallourec and the other two in family businesses: Elisabeth Badinter at Publicis and Marie-Hélène Dick at Virbac. Sophie Bellon, vice president at Sodexo will join these "happy few" in November, 2015. This highly exclusive circle will soon include Isabelle Kocher, when Gérard Mestrallet resigns as chairman of the board at Engie.

Five, it's very few, but it is also a sign that the feminization of boards is advancing. In 2015, compared to last year, boards have one more woman on average. They are therefore 5 out of 14 on CAC 40 boards and 4 out of 11 in the SBF 120. The 2011 Copé-Zimmermann law ensured that "the percentage of directors of either sex may not be less than 40%". The target is set for January 1, 2018. The AFEP-MEDEF code, which governs good practice for the governance of large listed companies, has zealously brought this date forward to January 1, 2017.

Women represent 35% of the members of a CAC 40 board and 32% in the SBF 120. There has been some progress: in 2015, 50% of new director's posts went to women. But this 40% risk threshold has not been observed. "To reach this target, SBF 120 companies need to recruit 150 women to their boards, which would seem difficult to reach by the end of 2016", comments Paul Jaeger, a partner at Russell Reynolds, the head-hunting consultancy, which has just published a study on governance of SBF 120 companies.

"In the CAC 40 they would need to find 48 women, assuming that those already in post do not resign. This represents 1.7 women per company" adds Marc Sanglé Ferriere, another partner at Russell Reynolds. It's a lot, especially as boards are always on the lookout for that rare jewel: a woman used to international culture but who is familiar with French practices and customs and especially the language of Molière, to be able to catch its nuances. 
The bottleneck

And then, one more thing, this woman must already have held a position on an executive committee.  "This is where the bottleneck occurs. It's a problem of experience. They have not been through the fire of the executive committee", Paul Jaeger explains. This is where their CV falls down. It's the same old story. It's a problem that is even harder to solve because France is badly positioned in Europe, with only 11.8% women on the CAC 40 executive committees and 13.5% in the SBF 120 (excluding the CAC 40, in other words a total of 162 women), against 16% for listed companies in the United Kingdom and 21% in the United States.

"Mentoring": an open sesame to the board of directors

Launched in 2007, the Board Women Partners program has enabled 41 women to take up positions on 63 boards.

It is not only Telemachus, the son of Ulysses going off to war, who needed a Mentor.  Everybody needs one. Especially women, in order to be able to take up directors' posts. It was based on this premise that the Board Women Partners (BWP) program was launched in 2007, before the Copé-Zimmermann law. Led by two women: Véronique Préaux-Cobti, change management specialist, and Marie-Claude Peyrache, formerly of France Télécom and the first woman to sit on its executive committee.

The idea of the mentoring program is the following: it puts senior women executives in contact with the chairmen of corporate boards. Every chairman who wants to put forward the name of one or more women in his company (who then become "mentees"). BWP puts these women in contact with the chairman of another company, also taking part in the program.  Each chairman undertakes to meet with a woman from another company to help and coach her or possibly even to give her a "leg up".  A role that he may not delegate to anyone else, in any form whatsoever. 

Bonus effect

Overview: 34 French groups participate in these programs, half from the CAC 40, the other half from the SBF 120. Among these employers are Accor, Air France, Air Liquide, AXA, BNP, Orange, Engie, Pernod Ricard, etc. If 63 women are still "mentees", 41 have already joined 65 boards. The advantage of the program is its bonus effect in terms of visibility. The women are very quickly identified as "high potential". Not only within their own company, (because their upper hierarchy has identified them as such) but especially outside, thanks to the mentor, who can play the role of a deluxe traveling sales representative.

Among the women directors, Estelle Brachlianoff, Veolia UK and Ireland executive vice-president, was part of this program before sitting on the board of Zodiac Aerospace. Ditto for Agnès Lemarchand. The former director of Lafarge (who was the first woman to be appointed as its chief executive) recognizes that the BWP program was the open sesame that got her on to the Areva supervisory board in 2011. Since then she has become a director at Saint-Gobain, CGG and bioMérieux.

Some have reached their target, some have a long way to go

Engie's board is made up of 63% women. Airbus only has 17%, but the aircraft manufacturer does not adhere to the AFEP-MEDEF code.

Some companies have gone further than others in feminizing their boards of directors... Thus GDF Suez, now Engie, has 63% women on its board of directors, Peugeot and Publicis, 55%; Vinci, Alstom and Michelin, 43%. At the other end of the scale, Crédit Agricole, Carrefour and LVMH still have a long way to go to reach the 40% target set for 2016 or 2017 (depending on whether one refers to the code of governance or the law), but they have reached the interim target of 20% for 2014. It does get worse - the Airbus Group only has 17%. But the aviation group adheres to the Dutch code of good governance, which does not take a position on feminizing boards, and it is committed to reach the 30% threshold.  Lafarge-Holcim, the result of a merger, is also to be found among the worst performers, but as a Swiss company it is not required to observe French law.

On executive committees, "Woman power" is still a long way off, but numbers of women are increasing slowly. In the CAC 40 they went from 48 women in 2014 to 56. In the SBF 120, there are now 162 women as opposed to 134 last year. The biggest change relates to their positions. They do not only hold public relations or human resource positions but increasingly have operational responsibilities.  On committees, 43% carry out this role, as against 33% last year. Kering, Orange, L'Oréal and Renault are among the executive committees with the most women. In 2015, Danone accepted two women on to its executive committee, which is great progress.

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Directors: 150 women to be recruited between now and 2017