When it comes to the ongoing struggle for gender equality, Europe is a diverse battleground with mixed results across the continent.

Isabella Lenarduzzi has been a social entrepreneur, an expert in communication, event and conference organisation for 30 years. Her areas of interest include women empowerment, equality, education, training, entrepreneurship, innovation and EU advocacy. Isabella launched JUMP “Promoting gender equality, advancing the economy” in 2006. She currently manages 3 companies, one NGO and a team of 12 people with an office in Brussels and in Paris.

She has been an Ashoka Fellow since 2013. Ashoka Fellows are leading social entrepreneurs who are recognised to have innovative solutions to social problems and the potential to change patterns across society.

Christopher P. Skroupa: Where does Europe currently stand compared to the U.S. in terms of corporate gender equality?

Isabella Lenarduzzi: Thanks to the Civil Rights Movement, the US was ahead of Europe when it comes to the concepts of privilege, discrimination and positive discrimination. This last one especially – positive discrimination – is not very well accepted in Europe. Even there, American companies were the first ones to take up the subject and they still have a stronger awareness about it than most European companies.

Europe is made of many different countries facing many different situations. Take for instance the Nordic countries: they constitute the podium of every gender equality ranking Index. In countries such as France, Belgium, and the UK, women can have a career and be a mother but it is more complicated in the German-speaking and Mediterranean countries where motherhood is regarded as a full commitment. As a consequence, the birth rate and the rate of participation of women in the economy is much lower in these countries. Women tend to leave the workforce as soon as they become mothers or to drastically reduce their working time. In Eastern countries, the communist influence that put everyone (men and women) to work quickly dissipated. They are now back to the traditional gender roles that never really disappeared from their culture. In Czech Republic, the labour force participation gap is about 15% between women and men. In Finland it is less than 3%.

So it is actually hard to talk about Europe as a whole, but if we try to find the main difference with the US, that would be our use of legislation. For instance, in 1992 the EU maternity leave law gave women 14 weeks of leave with guaranteed sick pay (EU laws are binding national regulations, but countries can go beyond the minimum imposed by the EU). There is now a focus on getting more fathers to take parental leave. If most EU countries already have laws guaranteeing leave for fathers, some still don’t (Germany, Austria, Czech Republic…). One of the main ideas behind the European Commission’s reform of parental leave law is to boost the rate of women in the labour market. Indeed, the countries without paternity leave laws are often those with the wider labour force participation gap.

Another striking example is the proposal from the European Commission and the European Parliament to establish a 40% quota for each gender on boards of stock-listed companies. As a result, many Member States (France, Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, Italy…) adopted the resolution and introduced quota laws, and thanks to that, in 5 years, the proportion of women on European boards almost doubled. In France, they even reached almost 40% of women on boards in CAC 40 companies, with every company needing to publish its gender equality plan or to pay penalties. The State also ranks deserving organisations to put them in the spotlight and inspire others. The new President, Emmanuel Macron, even wants to go further than penalties by using the “name and shame” strategy. There is this idea in Europe that things will not change in the corporate world unless it is forced by legislation, and indeed legislation has proven quite effective.


Skroupa: How do companies react to national or European binding regulations? Would you say that Europe is facing a “gender fatigue”?

Lenarduzzi: There is of course a strong opposition to coercive measures from some companies and leaders. That is not true for all of them, and it is not the explanation to this general atmosphere of gender fatigue. The issue is that gender equality plans require both time and strategy, yet a lot of companies think that after putting some policies in place, their part of the job is done and they just have to wait for the results. Unfortunately, things do not work that way.

Another common mistake is to forget that a switch of mindsets takes time. You cannot expect a change in your corporate culture to happen in just a few months. So it is hard to keep leaders’ interest and investments long enough to make a difference. That is where gender fatigue comes from. I love what the legendary feminist, Gloria Steinem, says about it, “Women do not ask for more inclusion. They offer real transformation.”

Companies must start taking the subject as seriously as any other strategic topic. That means defining clear goals and KPIs, and making managers accountable – not only the D&I officer (who is almost always a woman) or the company’s women network. They must make a diagnosis of their corporate culture and of their employees’ perceptions of their career opportunities. Care, ask, find out what your female staff wants in terms of professional equality. It is really important that the example comes from the top – not just in statements, but also in behaviour and actions.


Skroupa: JUMP recently published a survey titled “Do Men Want Gender Equality at Work”. Could you briefly explain the main findings?

Lenarduzzi: We found out that 3 men out of 4 see how they could benefit from more gender equality at work. Executives are also aware of the benefits for their company’s performance, but only 19% of men say they somehow help women’s professional advancement. 1 in 3 men even claim they oppose it, at least passively. Most of them don’t do anything at all.

More specifically, the study reveals that if 59% of men think that they don’t need to fear for their advancement in a company that promotes gender equality, 65% of them also think that most of their male colleagues would feel threatened in such a context. It is especially the quota policies that scare them. In general, men do not support women specific actions or diversity KPIs – as necessary as they both are.

The study points out that most men are simply not aware of the inequality that has always given them an advantage in the corporate world and that gender quotas exist to balance out this unconscious quota. Very few respondents were aware that the corporate and social cultures are the main obstacles to women’s careers. It is a well-known phenomenon, denounced by Léo Thiers-Vidal, “The privileged is not conscious of his privileges, because it is against his interest to be.”


Skroupa: Do you think sexist behaviours are still alive in the workplaces?

Lenarduzzi: I am sure you can easily predict my answer: yes, of course. Our last study focused on the individual experience of sexism. The results were quite alarming. 94% of the women who answered our questions testified having faced sexism at work. Most of them “only” experienced sexist jokes or inappropriate remarks. But there is still 1 woman out of 4 who had to face insults. Worse, 23% have been physically harassed or assaulted at some point of their career. I think we can agree that those kinds of behaviours will not help women thrive in the workplace.

Most companies are not aware that they are sexist, because they don’t realise that their culture favours the masculine norm, the masculine schedule and the masculine types of leadership. They are proud to show that they treat men and women the same way, but that is actually contributing to the problem. Women and men don’t have the same lives, the same behaviours, because society treats them differently and has had different expectations of them for the last 8,000 years.

For instance, women are often expected to bear most of the household work, even when they work full-time. They are the ones expected to take care of the kids when they are sick. They are the hard-drive of the family, organising its common life and carrying the well-being of its members. They also face more pressure about the way they dress, look, behave. All of that consumes a lot of time and energy, which explains why women are more subjected to burn-out than men.

Likewise, they are expected to be good listeners but they receive critical judgment when they put themselves forward, while men are perceived as audacious when they do so. That is a problem when it comes to promotion, because for women gender expectations are inconsistent with leadership expectations. So it is crucial that both women and men are trained to unmask and fight those unconscious bias and privileges. Knowing is the first step, but we need the understanding to become actors of change.