Being a Woman in France

It is easy to be under the perception that your feelings and problems are special only to you. In America, feminism is on the rise and women are taking a step up to fix the problems that have been going on for too long in our country. We have prepared ourselves for a battle on our home turf, but have we taken the chance to see what else is going on around us? I hadn’t. I knew that feminism existed elsewhere than America and that the ultimate goal was for it to be a global movement, but I had never really thought about the struggles and perceptions of women in other countries, especially other developed countries, and what their struggles were like. Not until now.

I am currently studying abroad for a month in France (I highly recommend). I am participating in a class called French Contemporary Society in which we have to complete a project about French society, and I thought what better topic than to talk about being a woman in France versus being a woman in America? So I set up a small survey and had some of my classmates, as well as other French women I was connected with, answer a few questions about what being a woman was like in France and the struggles that they face. Some things were surprising, others were relatively similar to America.

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The first few questions I asked regarded women in the workplace: The Glass Ceiling, wage gaps, and whether they believed it was easier for men to accomplish their goals. When it came to The Glass Ceiling, all but one person said they knew it existed and affected women’s careers. One woman, Julie Quentin Foulard, said “Yes indeed [it exists in France]. At my former job for example: there were 50 women working on the site and 10 men. 6 of [the men] were managers, whereas 2 of the managers were women.” In this one example, 60% of the men had management positions and only 4% of the women did, despite the women far outnumbering the men. Most of the women surveyed also said they believe it is easier for men to accomplish their goals than women and all surveyed stated that the wage gap also exists in France. Each person gave a different percentage ranging from 10% to 30% difference. So far, the survey looks extremely similar to answers American women were likely to give.

Of course I had to ask about dress codes in French schools. While in America it is mostly viewed as the premature sexualization of teenage girls, French women seem to disagree. I don’t know the specific requirements of each dress code, but all of the ones surveyed agreed that it seems to target girls’ clothing more often, but the codes are to teach professionalism.

The French language is unique from the American language in the fact that nouns are gendered male or female and certain rules change with the changing gender. I asked what they thought about this gendered language, and most of them said that by now it is just normal; something they have gotten used to. A few, however, did mention that the feminist movement is trying to make changes to make it less centered around men, but there are a lot of politics involved.

The rest of the questions I asked were centered around sexism and sexual assault. When asked if advertisements were often sexist, all but one surveyed said that yes, they felt it was. And, of course, I asked about the #metoo movement and what it meant to them and society as a whole. There were many thoughts that each person had, but I was intrigued by one woman’s answer, Chloé Dureau. She stated “Women are finally liberat[ing] their voices about aggression, more specifically on sexual harassment or aggression. It’s very good, but we need a reaction of all the government [and] law. And also a big reaction [from] men, they need to…. correct their behavior”. I think this statement rings true for both French and American women alike.

When it comes to being fearful of sexual assault, the group was split. Half said they had experienced sexual terrorism, when one is afraid of being sexually assaulted, and half of the women said they had not felt that way before. Despite half of the group being fearful at some point of sexual assault, not one woman surveyed said they had ever carried a self-protection weapon like pepper-spray. This astonished me. I have yet to meet one American college aged woman that doesn’t own pepper-spray or at least has some kind of method in place for protection, and I’ve met plenty of non-college aged women that also arm themselves with things like pepper and wasp spray on their key chains, in their cars, and even in their work places. Even me, a semi-paranoid person who always carries pepper spray with me in America, found myself leaving my pepper spray in my room day after day. I just didn’t feel the need to have it.

The women surveyed were unsure of how often sexual assault occurs in France, but their answers were all across the board when asked if they thought sexual assault was handled well in schools, by country officials, and the law. The answers ranged from “yes”, “generally well”, to “no”.  Estelle Cré said that “sometimes the policemen don’t believe the victims. The victims have to have proof of what they have suffered,” which sounds very similar to the American system as well. Dureau  also mentioned how victims are questioned aggressively by police and are spoken to as if they are the guilty, along with stating that jail times are very short for convicted rapists, as little as seven years. It is phenomenal to me the similarities our two countries have when it comes to dealing with this crime.

When asked if they, in general, felt safe in their home, school, town, and country, all answered yes, except for one concern with evening time.

When asked for general statements, Foulard said “I enjoy being a woman in France: I feel free to be the person I want to be,” and Roxane Mathe said she is “lucky to be a woman in France”. Dureau says “We… need to be [bolder] to get what we want.”

When looking at answers directly from French women, it astonishes me how similar we, as Americans and French citizens, all seem to be when it comes to the problems and obstacles we face. If anything, these results point to the need of global feminism and reaching out and across borders  to achieve our goals together. Other than a few slight differences, I think that American and French women are likely to have very similar experiences even though we are half a world away.