It’s Amazing to Be a Working Mom in France—Unless You Want a Job

France supports women having children, and then discriminates against them for it.

A cyclist rides past a French Citroen 2CV parked in front of the famous Eiffel Tower in Paris on August 3, 2012.
France has both the highest birth rate in Europe and one of the highest percentages of women in the workforce

Photo by Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images

I’m on the job hunt again, friends. After moving to France two years ago and having my first child, I’ve decided to go back to work. Or rather, I need to go back to work, for both financial and mental reasons.  I’ve read Sheryl Sandberg’s book, and I am ready to lean in.

Here in France, leaning in should be a piece of cake. France has both the highest birth rate in Europe and one of the highest percentages of women in the workforce. There are wonderful supports and guarantees here that we don’t have in the United States—a four-month-long maternity leave, inexpensive health care for all, five weeks of vacation a year, and many quality and affordable full-time day care options. France has made getting mothers back to work a priority.

But after my first job interview here, I realized that progressive France might not be quite as enlightened as I thought. I interviewed at a small, female-led company for a job for which I was quite qualified. The interview was in French, which made me a bit nervous, but after a few minutes I was chattering away. Everything was going great.

Then my interviewer asked if I had children. I told her I had an 18-month-old, and that we found Paris to be a much friendlier city to raise a family in than New York, where we’d moved from. “Ah,” she said, “Votre fille—comment est-elle garder?” What followed was a long discussion of my child care situation, who cared for my daughter during the week, and for how long, and if I’d have to leave work early to pick her up. Then she asked how old I was, and if I was planning to have more children. I felt myself cringing —why was this coming up, and in such detail so early in our discussion? Would you even be allowed to ask these questions in the United States? (No.) My French became emphatic, Neanderthal like, as I tried to assure her I wouldn’t leave at 6 p.m. every day: “I can hire nanny. I want to work at job I like, not just leave every day at six hours.” Eventually, either impressed by my vehemence or appalled at my French, she dropped the subject. And though I haven’t heard one way or another, I’m pretty sure the possibility of hiring me got dropped as well.

I don’t want being a mother to change the way employers see me, but of course, it does. I’m in my 30s. It’s true that I’ll likely get pregnant again. It’s true I will sometimes want to have dinner with my family. And it’s true that any company that hires me is making a long-term investment—it’s much more difficult to fire people in France than in the United States. This causes employers to think about the future when hiring, including how a woman’s eventual or actual children might affect her job performance. It’s also not illegal in France to ask about a person’s age and marital status in an interview. It is illegal to discriminate based on the answers, but this kind of discrimination can be very hard to prove.

As I continued to look for work, I learned that France actually does quite poorly in world rankings of gender equality in the workplace. In its 2012 Global Gender Gap Index, the World Economic Forum ranked France a shocking 57th, behind most other European countries, the United States (too low at No. 22), Jamaica, and Russia. This year, the Economist ranked it slightly higher on its list of best countries to be a working woman, at No. 11—just in front of the United States. And while the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows France doing better than most of the developed world on key indicators, such as women’s education, health care, and the availability of child care, the country has comparatively few women in senior management positions, and even fewer elected female representatives in Parliament (20 percent as opposed to the OECD norm of 25 percent). Though the government has passed legislation calling for equal pay for men and women, an appreciable wage gap (currently 12 percent) still exists, and gets worse as employees age.

Why is a country that is so outwardly progressive still plagued with such basic workplace inequalities? While France has a wonderful safety net for women, much of it is designed to promote the growth of families as a way of boosting the birthrate. Indeed, families in France receive numerous supports and subsidies the more children they have. A family with two children is eligible for an automatic monthly stipend of 125 euros, regardless of income. With three children, a family is designated a “Famille Nombreuse,” which includes a raise in the automatic stipend, a possible further subsidy of up to 500 euros a month for the mother if she chooses not to return to work, and even reduced admission for transportation, museums, and amusement parks. And, at four children, a woman becomes eligible for the medaille de la famille,” an honorary medal from the French government.

But some of the government protections and incentives offered to mothers in France may in fact make their advancement in the workplace more difficult. Paid maternity leave increases with the number of children, from 16 weeks for one or two children to 26 weeks for three or more. (In contrast, paternity leave stays fixed at 11 days.) This much guaranteed leave can make employers nervous to hire and promote women. In a 2010 survey of French employers, only 25 percent said they were strongly interested in hiring mothers, and 41 percent expressed fear that there would be less flexibility in the schedules of mothers who worked. Interestingly (but perhaps not surprisingly), employers didn’t express this fear when asked about hiring fathers.

This is where French government incentives for mothers don’t seem to be matching the country’s business culture. Though by law a company must guarantee a woman on maternity leave a return to her old job or one with similar responsibilities, in practice there are ways for companies to get around this. They may promote a younger worker over her, or a woman may find herself  “mise au placard,” a French term that means “put in the closet.” This is what a French company does when it can’t fire someone—it freezes her out. Though in title and salary the job remains the same, the employee is stripped of responsibilities, disinvited to meetings, given little or nothing of consequence to do, until she (or he) hopefully decides to quit, thus absolving the company of all the indemnities it would have to pay if it fired the person.

This happened to my neighbor after she went back to work after her fourth child. “Ne pas attendre les bras ouverts” (don’t expect open arms), a colleague told her. During her leave, the company had decided to hire her temporary replacement permanently. When she returned, she found the temp had taken her best accounts. She still drew a salary, but had no real responsibility. “I don’t think they expected me to come back at all,” she told me. And yet, when I think about it from the company’s perspective, when an employee has four children in seven years, that means she’s spent at least a year and a half of that time on paid maternity leave—is it any wonder she’s not first on the list for promotions?

But what, then, is a reasonable alternative? Women are going to have children, and women are going to work. Must our choice be between instability and stagnation? And if it is, women in France may find themselves pushed to give up protections like maternity leave in favor of career advancement. Caroline Boide, writing for the French website rue89, recounts what she was once told by a woman interviewing her: “Women don’t know how to play the game today,” the interviewer said. “They’re not reachable during their maternity leave. You know what I’d tell you? I’ve had three children and I stopped work for fifteen days, and no one died.” Indeed, according to a government study on the plafond de verre (glass ceiling) in France, French female executives spoke of needing to “neutralize” their personal lives, making sure home life and children didn’t interfere in any way with their work—even if this meant working long hours, being constantly available, reducing their maternity leave, and minimizing the presence of their pregnancies at work. This often required delegating the organization and maintenance of their home life entirely to another person, either a nanny, a relative, or in rare cases, their spouse. The affordability and ubiquity of child care can actually lead to less workplace flexibility, especially in high powered sectors. I’ve heard of French financial consultants with full time nannies being ordered to hire a second “evening” nanny to allow them to work longer days.

Faced with the choice between pretending they have no home life, or admitting they do and risking being placardiser, many French mothers opt out of their careers as they have more children. Though the employment rate is above 90 percent for women age 25–49 who have no children, and still more than 80 percent for women with one child, it falls to less than 40 percent for women with three children. For men, by contrast, these numbers remain fairly consistent, around 90 percent no matter how many children they have. As a country France is doing so much to encourage women to have children (which is probably why so many have three), yet they haven’t solved the problem of how these women can boost the country’s birthrate while remaining a vital part of the workforce.

Of course, being a working mother in the United States is far from easy—without guaranteed maternity leave or health insurance, and without many affordable child care options, American mothers fall out of the workforce at an even greater rate than their French counterparts. However, the United States has done just as well or better than France by most measurements at closing the workplace gender gap. Is it possible that the more Spartan benefits in the U.S. actually contribute to providing more opportunities for women? Certainly there is less of a stigma in the United States about changing jobs or even careers in mid-life than there is in France, and because U.S. employers can more easily fire people, they may be more willing to hire as well.

It’s hard to know how to find the right balance, between a society that supports women having children and a society that discriminates against them for it. I don’t want to live (or pay taxes) in a country with a busted safety net, but I also don’t want that safety net to make the workplace so calcified that there’s little mobility.

What I really want is to find a new job, one where the fact that I’m a parent isn’t a liability.