French Government Goes Back To School for Anti-Sexism Training

Members of French President Hollande's cabinet undergo obligatory sexism awareness training as part of a push to attain gender equality--with mixed initial results

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Michel Euler, AP, File

In this May, 17, 2012 file photo, French President Francois Hollande, second right, and Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, center, pose with women of the cabinet after the first weekly cabinet meeting, at the Elysee Palace in Paris. Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault has asked the French equality ministry to set up a series of 45 minute workshops, where politicians are given examples of sexism in daily life and with the aid of slide-shows taught how to avoid sexist stereotypes in political communication.

Members of France’s left-wing cabinet are not just struggling to overcome the nation’s debt crisis, rising unemployment, failing economic growth, and threats to the euro’s very existence. Now they’re also having to master sexist proclivities they may harbor through mandatory sensitivity courses designed to eliminate gender stereotyping and patronizing speech. In other words, the country’s policy makers are going back to school for some anti-sexism classes.

Good luck with that. This is, after all, a French political establishment that gave us the notorious Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Further, male legislators recently greeted a female minister’s speech to parliament with wolf calls, and produced a woman prime minister who once explained the reason British men didn’t ogle her the way Frenchmen did was because one in four Englishmen were gay. It was also France’s last leftist government that, in 2000, passed a law requiring equal numbers of male and female candidates in elections—a legal obligation all parties have largely flouted since.

Clearly, the nation’s leaders have some work to do on leveling the gender playing field.

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Still, efforts as self-improvement should be commended—even if the classes already appear to be having mixed results. Some members of Socialist President François Hollande’s government say ministers have eagerly embraced the 45-minute “sensitization sessions” as a reminder of how easily sexist attitudes can leak into attitudes and comments—often by accident. They’ve added that graduates of the sessions are often keen to put what they’ve learned into action.

Yet when Agriculture Minister Stéphane Le Foll became the first official to discuss his participation in the program, he caused jaws across France to drop by noting how he’s promoted women in his ministry to very crucial posts, “even though the subjects are very technical.” That comment seemed to reflect national stereotypes of men as detail-oriented wonky types, with women better at the more flexible, creative tasks. It wasn’t quite up there with Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” slip, but as proof of the class’s efficiency, Le Foll’s comment proved a tad counter-productive.

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The courses were ordered by Women’s Rights Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem as part of Hollande’s promise to attain gender balance within government and ministry staffs–and squelch racist, sexist, and other prejudiced attitudes and expression in public life. The sessions are being directed by renowned feminist, and Vallaud-Belkacem adviser, Caroline de Haas, who peppers participants with examples of sexist thinking and expression—often through habits so ingrained that people are no longer aware of them. De Haas also goes through details of the annual Global Gender Gap list to fully flesh out why it is France occupies a dismal 48th position in the ranking of male-female equality in government and business.

The message de Haas seeks to impress, she says, is not only that active and latent forms of sexism exist throughout French society, but also that officials must be constantly aware of those influences in order to avoid echoing them, even unintentionally.

As Le Foll’s comments indicate, this is a filtering effort that may take some time to perfect. (A rather unfair cautionary role for Le Foll to assume, given his reputation as one of the French left’s more committed and earnest progressives. Seven of the 15 advisors he’s appointed to his cabinet are women, for example). Thus far, 12 of the 38 members of Hollande’s government have taken de Haas’ course, and another 14 have reportedly reserved a date for their session. Once she’s managed the minor miracle of rooting out creeping sexist attitudes among cabinet members, de Haas might consider giving them tips in kick-starting the economy and creating jobs.

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