Breaking the glass ceiling: the pursuit of gender parity in French philanthropy


Hazal Atay and Anne Cornilleau


Promoting gender equality is at the very heart of philanthropy as it is constitutive of just and inclusive societies. Within this context, The Observatory of Philanthropy of Fondation de France published a study in November 2022 on gender parity in foundations and examined what’s at stake with gender parity for the philanthropic sector in France. The study found that over the past 20 years progress has been made in increasing women’s representation in the governance of foundations – yet challenges still remain in achieving gender parity in the philanthropic sector.

In France, the persistent underrepresentation of women in various aspects of life and ensuing efforts to address these inequalities have propelled gender parity as a key national policy goal. Gender parity has been discussed notably in the context of politics and economics, and various laws have been enacted since the early 2000s to boost women’s representation. Some of these laws have indeed had a substantial impact. For instance, as of 2021, France has become a global leader in women’s representation on the boards of directors of large companies, with 46 per cent of women holding such positions thanks to the Copé-Zimmerman law mandating a 40 per cent gender quota for corporate boards of large companies.

However, no legal measures have been put in place to increase women’s representation and to advance gender parity in foundations. What is more, while previous studies pointed to some progress and increased awareness on the matter within the philanthropic sector, gender parity in foundations has never been studied extensively.

Gender parity: a matter of exemplarity and coherence for foundations

Gender parity broadly refers to equal representation of each sex within a particular institution. The 21 interviews we conducted with the executive members of foundations and experts as part of this research showed, however, that gender parity is a concept with multiple meanings, encompassing different perspectives, interpretations and strategies. In this respect, we found that gender parity is most commonly associated with gender balance. Moreover, a number of interviewees indicated that gender parity intersects other societal issues, such as diversity and inclusion, and should really be viewed as a cross-cutting matter at the heart of philanthropic work. Interviewees emphasized that foundations shall set and lead by example for gender equality and parity as a matter of coherence.

Progress and challenges

Our analysis of the governance structures of 520 foundations and endowment funds in France shows that women’s representation has improved over the past twenty years. For instance, public benefit foundations had 10 per cent of women in 2001, while this ratio had increased to 30 per cent in 2021. Despite this evolution, women do remain largely underrepresented in these governance bodies as they only represent a third of the members of the boards studied. It is worth noting that the gender composition of foundations’ boards varies greatly depending on the legal status: Corporate foundations stand out very clearly in this picture, having gender parity in governance in nearly half of the cases. This may well be a trickle-down effect of the quota mandate imposed on large companies, i.e. a transfer of practice from companies to their foundations.

Women have indeed been pushing the glass ceiling. However, inequalities in the distribution of roles and responsibilities persist even when gender parity is achieved. The study has shown that women in governance are largely given roles reflecting socially widespread gender stereotypes. For example, while 45 per cent of women held secretarial positions, they only represent 18 per cent of chairs on the boards studied. These numbers show that women remain underrepresented in leadership roles. This implies that not only a glass ceiling continues to bar women, but women are also discriminated against in terms of the duties and roles they assume in the governance of foundations.

An opportunity for the philanthropic sector

Gender parity represents both a challenge and an opportunity for the philanthropic sector in France. Given the diverse perspectives on the issue, there appears to be no ideal or uniform path to gender parity. In this respect, experiences in other sectors, particularly in light of the measures adopted in the political and economic spheres, can help create a roadmap towards gender parity in the governance of foundations. While lessons learned from the implementation of these measures can provide important opportunities, translating and incorporating them into the work and governance of foundations remains a challenge.

In the report, we present several suggestions and actionable steps that foundations can take towards gender parity and equality. Some of these include conducting regular assessments regarding the state of gender equality, reflecting on gender inequalities where present, building up an action plan and investing in capacity building to promote gender equality and parity. While we suggest starting by raising awareness and conducting assessments regarding gender composition of boards, we insist on the importance of institutionalizing discussions and commitments for gender parity and embedding them in the larger context of equality, inclusion and diversity in foundations.

The report can be consulted here.

Hazal Atay is a researcher and lecturer at CEVIPOF, Sciences Po Paris, working on women’s representation and gender policy-making, and Anne Cornilleau is the head of studies at the Observatory of Philanthropy, Fondation de France.

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