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Discrimination: face-to-face with “ordinary” sexism in business

Sevrine le loarne
Published on
12 December 2020

Above and beyond legal requirements which are designed to encourage equality between men and women, each company has a role to play in fighting discrimination and “ordinary” sexism. Grenoble Ecole de Management has been working in the field for several years to help prevent discrimination and raise awareness about gender parity in business.

Interview with Séverine Le Loarne, head of the Women and economic renewal chair (Femmes et Renouveau Économique - FERE), at Grenoble École de Management.

What are the economic benefits for companies to fight discrimination at work?

Society moves faster than business and is upending our preconceptions. Various social movements (Me Too, climate change, Gilets Jaunes…) do not look kindly upon companies. Social pressure is increasing and fallout on social networks can be enormous. The layoffs at Danone are a good example of a company "with a mission" suffering from such fallout.
In this context, if companies do not evolve they will be boycotted: Younger generations will not apply for jobs at the company and consumers will not buy their products or services. It's an undeniable trend.

Another benefit highlighted by research in France is the direct correlation between women in leadership and a company's success with disruptive innovations.
Women, because of their education, also tend to unite players instead of fighting them. They stand out in their ability to reconcile European policy requirements, lobbying pressure and citizens demands.

Finally, Anglosaxon management studies highlight better economic performance when companies leadership boards are mixed.

What does "ordinary" sexism look like in a company?

This is mainly a question of networking, and therefore strategic backroom decision making. Professional networks are mostly developed in the evening, after working hours, when women traditionally take care of family and educational tasks. These practices are therefore "sexist" because they are "male" activities (or females without home and child-rearing responsibilities).
In the same manner, it is widely accepted to speak about taking time for oneself, to travel, to play sports… However, taking time to care for children remains a taboo subject in companies, in particular for men.

Finally, the fifth year of the GEM sexism barometer once again highlighted the continuing habit of "little sexist jokes" both at the school and in companies.

What actions has the FERE Chair implemented with students at GEM in order to overcome stereotypes and help change management attitudes?

The FERE Chair's mission is to produce research results through action and develop educational and prevention tools, notably for future managers. In concrete terms, the chair is built on a fundamental assessment: we are all potential harassers and victims of harassment – this includes managers, both male and female. Our work is to act as a counterweight to this tendency by using tools that encourage reflexion and awareness about business ethics. We created a comic book (Rencontres avec le sexisme) that proposes a concrete reflexion about ethics in business. Our toolbox is inspired by real situations and is implemented through a class (innovation, marketing, finance…). This educational and prevention teaching effort is not optional. It is a required part of the GEM curriculum.

The FERE Chair also builds on the work of the philosopher René Girard, who established the scapegoat theory. We think about how to predict sexist behavior, analyze at-risk situations and consider co-responsibility (as we are all responsible).

GEM also implemented an alert center in which students are charged with the mission of collecting and analyzing testimony and providing support for victims of sexist, discriminatory or violent behavior (including rape, in which case a legal proceding is launched directly).

Have the multiple lockdowns increased inequality at work because of telecommuting?

My analysis has to be qualified by the particular context: various studies carried out by the chair indicate, in normal situations, that women entrepreneurs are better equipped to work from home. However, especially during the first lockdown, the situation was very different because children, and therefore teaching, was forced into the home. In this specific context, the best scenario was that both parents equally shared the increase in childcare responsibilities. But in the worst case, single female parents, or women who were already solely responsible for child-related tasks, found themselves with a heavy increase in workload and mental stress.

We can also note that female entrepreneurs, who were in a strong growth trend, were those who were most impacted by the health crisis. Why? Because female entrepreneurs majoritarily work in support services for business. And these jobs were immensely impacted by the lockdown.

FERE supports female entrepreneurship in the city's at-risk neighborhoods.

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Since 2016, the FERE Chair has supported women who wished to create an entrepreneurial project. As of 2021, the chair will focus on female entrepreneurship in at-risk neighborhoods in Grenoble.
As of February 2021, and every two months thereafter, the FERE Chair will lead think tank sessions in partnership with local actors (citizens, politiciens, network partners, associations, financial backers, etc.) and female entrepreneurs. "The goal of the FERE Chair is to support the creation of sustainable jobs in these neighborhoods, and if possible, jobs related to the environment and sustainable development. The work in the field will be carried out with the incubator GEM-Les Premières, which supports the development of female entrepreneurship," explains Séverine. The initiative is supported by the Grenoble-Alpes Metropolis and the French Tech Tremplin. A future ambition is to expand the initiative to the territories of Hauts-de-France, Aubagne and Provence-Alpes-Côte-d'Azur.

Under the auspices of Fondation de France, the Fondation Grenoble Ecole de Management supports the FERE Chair and has launched a call for donations from individuals and companies. These donations are tax-deductible. Make a gift and support the cause!

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