On Wednesday night, Staff Writer Sophie (Theo) Sandler went to Buell Hall to hear Professor Céline Bessière discuss her research concerning the interactions between gender and economic disparities in France.

On Wednesday last week, Céline Bessière, Professor of Sociology at Paris Dauphine University, came to the Maison Francaise in Buell Hall to discuss her research and elaborate on the topics discussed in the book she co-authored with Sibylle Gollac, a sociology researcher at the National Scientific Research Center in France. Their book, The Gender of Capital, elaborates on how France’s financial policy serves to maintain money in the hands of those who already have it, particularly wealthy men.

Professor Céline Bessière began by emphasizing the increasing wealth gap between the ultra-wealthy and the vast majority of people, a trend that is happening in many countries, including Bessière’s research focus: France. Bessière indicated that wealthy families in France have many strategies for ensuring that their funds remain within their family, passed on to their children. These may be reinforced by systemic actors, some of which are unintentional, but all of these strategies serve to perpetuate this cycle.

One way in which this is managed is by relationships between men and women. While women on average work longer hours than men, these increased hours come from a greater time spent doing housework, which is uncompensated. As a result, even before inheritance or childcare comes into play, there are divisions in the amount of income (and wealth-building) in which women can engage. 

While married couples in France are asked to split their money, this is not the case for non-married couples, which is a group that is becoming more prominent in France. Though this is not a problem in and of itself, it does mean that women continue to make less money than men, and if this partnership is broken up, it does not result in an even splitting of incomes as it does for divorces. As a result, while they are functionally in a partnership, legally non-married women do not have ownership over the same amount of funds that they would if they were married. 

When it comes to the wealthiest families, there are other ways in which funds are maintained. Bessière began by distinguishing between French notaries and notaries in the United States. Although they have similar names, they play different roles, with French notaries being in charge of a variety of financial contracts such as wills or deeds. Paradoxically, despite part of their role being to collect taxes, they often advise families to pay less taxes, reducing the amount of funds that are redistributed to the population as a whole and retaining wealth for the families that they work with. 

In addition to this unequal implementation of the law, assets are distributed unequally within families, with businesses, land, and other more profitable ventures more frequently provided to sons, perpetuating inequality along the lines of gender. This pattern persists despite 200 years of a law on the books stating that female and male children should receive the same amount through inheritance. 

Bessière attributed this in part to the order in which inheritances are divided between family members. In theory, this process begins with identifying a family member’s assets, then calculating a value for each, and later distributing them. In actuality, this process is essentially thrown aside and these steps are reversed. 

From her observations of many meetings with notaries and families, Bessière asserted that people often come to these meetings knowing what they want. Sons (especially first-born sons) are often the first to receive the most profitable assets such as businesses or land titles, and the remaining assets are distributed to other family members. Importantly, this method often prioritizes certain people’s ability to build wealth at the expense of other family members. 

Bessière described a case in which a family’s business was inherited by a son, despite him being less educated than either of his two sisters. He then proceeded to sell the business to pursue his own plans. Distressed at this turn of events, one of his nieces expressed that men are often given power over these financially malleable ventures. 

Professor Bessière also noted the conservative nature of the notaries as a group. They are incentivized to prioritize business ownership to sons often because of the very nature of how notaries gain their position. To attain status as a notary, one must either buy an office or inherit the position. Importantly, the cost of purchasing an office is over 1 million euros, a hefty price that prevents all but very wealthy individuals from obtaining these positions. 

The notaries’ beliefs, then, are deeply influenced by their status and experiences; Bessière’s fieldwork saw all the notaries she engaged with came from business-owning families. As a result, they are presumably unknowingly allowing their concepts of what propertied families look like (and should look like) to affect their decisions. Clicking through images of notary providers online, Bessière notes the repetition of certain motifs—men and male children smiling together on website pages about how businesses are passed on. 

As she spoke, I noted that this system echoes some of the challenges with coding bias in AI. Both are systems that are often perceived to be separated from the people that comprise them and not subject to their biases or opinions. In fact, they are both built upon people’s pre-existing beliefs and interpretations of how the world should work, whether they are conscious of this reality or not. 

Bessière collected information via a variety of sources, including sitting in on meetings with families and their lawyers or notaries to observe these legal procedures. Bessière’s presence in these meetings opened up new insights into the legal proceedings since most of these occur in small rooms that contribute to the invisibility of these decisions and less scrutiny over what decisions have been made in the past. They also relied upon family case studies and a French wealth study from 2015 that emphasized a lack of sources for many of their topics of interest.

Even without the influence of notaries, and even if women are married, they are often kept from pertinent information about their financial standing.  Bessière cited a study that demonstrated that as households become wealthier, the gap between the husband and wife’s awareness of finances increases. Calling it a “production of ignorance” for women, she mentioned a case in which a woman was left in the dark about her husband’s net worth of hundreds of millions of dollars in shell companies. In this way, keeping women unaware of their true financial holdings allows men to retain control and maintain more jurisdiction over how funds are distributed in their marriages.

Another way in which wealth inequality is perpetuated in France is through determining child support payments. Child support in France is determined by the income of the parent paying child support and does not take into account the income of the parent who raises the child. In most cases, the parent who raises the child is the mother, who is then often forced to bear more of the burden of childcare because child support provided may not be sufficient. Women are asked to take on the role of primary child support despite, as mentioned previously, being more likely to make less money. 

Bessière continually stressed the difference between the way laws are written out and how they are actually implemented and exist in our society today. The ways in which families circumvent these regulations (intentionally or unintentionally) serve to reinforce financial inequality, and the low level of access to these systems and their outcomes make it challenging to observe any of the harmful patterns that persist. 

Buell hall via Bwarchives