I am the one who count : the bank and women

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Les Femmes mécanographes

Like other rights, such as the right to pass the baccalaureate or the right to vote, women’s rights in banking, whether as employees or customers, have been slow to be recognized, whether to work, open an account, save or spend their money freely.

Première de couverture de l’édition spéciale intitulée La BNP et les Femmes diffusée en 1968 – Archives historiques BNP Paribas

From the “incapable adult” to the “unassisted” woman

The financial emancipation of women in France began in 1881 : a law authorized women to open a savings account in complete autonomy. This measure was reinforced by the 1895 law, which allowed them to make deposits and withdrawals without their husband’s approval.

Until then, women had been declared “incapable adults” by the Napoleonic code of 1804 and could not manage their savings alone. The laws of 1881 and 1895 abandoned this notion in favor of another one: a woman “not assisted by her husband”, a mention that would be affixed to savings books opened by married women. Then in 1907, women obtained the right to dispose of their salary as they wished.  

In the 1880s, new administrative departments were created and, for the first time, women were hired in large financial institutions, an opening that belongs to a more general movement of office jobs feminization. Women seemed perfectly suited to these new jobs, such as in the collections office, the accounting department and especially in the securities and coupon offices. In the securities office, they were responsible for paying out the bonds: when the coupons were paid out, they detached them and pasted them onto the pages of the bank’s big ledgers, noting the date and name of the person to whom the amount was paid.

Operator clipping coupons, 1939 – BNP Paribas Historical Archives

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BNCI operator using a machine to cut coupons, 1939 – BNP Paribas Historical Archives

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BNCI operator using a machine to cut coupons, 1939 – BNP Paribas Historical Archives

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Barbès, portfolio department, BNP Paribas Historical Archives

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They worked under the scrutiny of a senior employee who was also a woman since women had no contact with customers or with their male colleagues. In certain banks, they entered the building through a special entry and in all the establishments where they were employed, they worked and took their meals in separate rooms.

Salle de dactylographie du Centre administratif de la Banque nationale pour le commerce et l’industrie (BNCI) vers 1960. Archives historiques BNP Paribas
Typing room of the Administrative Center of BNCI, circa 1960 – BNP Paribas Historical Archives

More and more working women and asserting their rights

In 1909, women, often young and educated from the middle classes, who needed to work, represented one tenth of the main staff at the Crédit foncier. In 1914,  they accounted for almost 25% of the total Parisian staff at the CNEP (700 out of 3,000).

But these figures hide a disparity in status. Women were paid lower salaries than their male counterparts and had far less job security. In the bearer bonds department, for example, they could be hired the day before the main payment dates and dismissed immediately afterwards. In the less seasonal departments, their status was often only that of an auxiliary and it took them far longer than men to obtain a permanent status. In order to compensate for their precarious status, as early as 1902, the women employed on a daily basis at the CNEP created a free society that intended to finance indemnities in case of absence due to illness.

When the war changed mentalities

The movement of financial and professional emancipation of women in France was accelerated by the major conflicts of the 20th century.

The First World War led women to enter the labor market en masse and to manage daily life without men, who were away at the front. The issue was above all economic: in these difficult times, it was necessary to find a way to support commercial and industrial development of the country. Married women were called in to help in the offices as well as on the production lines, and during this period they also benefited from powers of attorney authorizing them to manage the money of their husband’s account.

During the Second World War, women obtained the right to vote, by the ordinance signed by General de Gaulle on April 21, 1944.

July 13, 1965: the law that changed French women lives

Until then, married women had to present a “marital authorization” to open an account or sign an employment contract, even though a third of them had a professional activity.  Single or widowed women, on the other hand, enjoyed the same autonomy as male clients.

BNP advertising, 1967, the law of July 13,1965 on the matrimonial status – BNP Paribas Historical Archives

For banks as well as for women, the law of July 13, 1965 was decisive: a married woman could become, in the same way as a single woman or a widow, a client like any other at the bank. Authorizing married women to open a bank account in their own name and to work without their husband’s consent, women became customers in their own right.

From then on, banks deployed a whole arsenal of communication tools to seduce women, who gradually gained financial independence. The commercial potential was significant: in 1965, a pivotal year for the development of women’s banking in France, they represented more than half of the French population following the arrival on the job market of new generations of young women born between 1942 and 1955. 40% of them worked, but only 45% held a checking account, which was in fact a joint account with their spouse, as they did not make effective use of it.

Extrait de l’édition spéciale de la BNP destinée à la clientèle féminine, 1968 – Archives historiques BNP Paribas
Extract of the BNP special edition to the female customers, 1968 – BNP Paribas Historical Archives

Charming offensive towards women who count

Female customers became a real target for banking institutions. At the European level – from the early 1960s for Swedes until the mid-1970s for Italians,  women represented an extremely promising market for banks.

In this context, banks launched unprecedented campaigns throughout France, aimed directly at the “modern woman”: it was necessary to let the “modern woman” know that the bank would accompany her in all her financial and banking procedures to facilitate her management of the family budget.

The modern woman and money questions, BNCI, 1965 – BNP Paribas Historical Archives

By posters, brochures, advertising pages in women’s magazines, women are invited to open an account, to put their jewelry in the bank’s safe deposit boxes, to slip a cheque book into their handbag, and even to take out a loan. Dedicated educational materials entitled “Women and Banking” were created in the 1960s to contribute to women’s financial education.

Banque Nationale de Paris (BNP) did not miss out on this trend and made it its objective to get to know its female clientele and meet or exceed their expectations. The bank has taken numerous initiatives, including the inclusion of specific financial questions in women’s magazines, a survey on family budget management, the publication of a brochure entitled “I do my accounts in three minutes a day”, and the organization of roundtable discussions with women selected by the branches to hear what they think and to better adapt the services offered. As early as 1973, the bank even invested in the specialized press for young women.

BNP, Women and the bank – BNP Paribas Historical Archives

Although the French had a low level of bank coverage in 1967 – only 15 to 18% of households hold a  bank account – we see the rise in wage labor emerging from the bancarisation of society, through the equipment of households in financial services and products such as the use of the cheque account. At the end of the 1980s, the number of bank accounts exceeded 90%.

Women who count in the bank

In 2020, women represent 52% of the total workforce of the BNP Paribas Group and 31% of them hold senior management positions.

The Group is committed to promoting professional equality in all professional spheres. Since 2011, it has developed a program to support women move into senior management positions. It is in this context that the target of 25% of women senior managers was reached in 2014, compared with only 18.4% in 2011.

While women now work in all areas of banking, BNP Paribas is committed to increasing gender diversity in traditionally male-dominated and female-dominated professions, as part of its partnership with the global HeforShe program initiated by UN Women.

Jean-Laurent Bonnafé, BNP Paribas CEO,
takes part in “HeForShe” campaign of Women UN

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