France, like most countries, has its own particular brand of sexism. The title ‘La Directrice’ seems to encapsulate this. When the boss is a woman her attributes of leadership are somehow feared or used as the butt of jokes. Often both.
My first encounter with la directrice was in the person of a certain Madame Guillaume in Lyon. She bore the rather lofty title of ‘Directrice d’école maternelle’ or headmistress of the preschool where I had come to register my son turn my baby over to the wolves. For someone who made a career of educating the under-fives, she had nothing short of a military bearing as she gazed at me through her pince-nez. “What do the children call you?” I asked, as we were leaving. She raised an eyebrow to indicate mild surprise at this question, then replied: “Madame Guillaume, ou Maîtresse.”
I nodded dumbly while thinking that two-and-a-half was awfully young for a boy to have a Madame or a Mistress.
My second run-in with the authority of la directrice was when I entered the working world. Like many non-native speakers, teaching English was my default career choice upon arriving in France with few employment credentials able to ensure my continued professional growth keep the wolf from the door. The head of the Berlitz language school in the business sector of Lyon was a certain Madame Bissuel who looked a bit like the photographer Annie Leibowitz. To be fair, I was foisted upon her through a job transfer from the school in Paris but she made it very clear that she was not particularly happy about having me on board. Her unhappiness turned to outright dislike when I announced my precipitous departure on maternity leave a few months later. I took a weird delight in writing my letter of resignation after my benefits ran out; spellcheck kept changing her name to ‘bisexuelle’.
My most intimate encounter with a female head of state was in the person of my late Belle-mère. For reasons that eluded me, my father-in-law always referred to her affectionately as la directrice. This struck me as especially funny as my mother-in-law never seemed to be centre stage; it was always Beau-père who did everything. But as I later learned, theirs was rather like the authority at the highest level of French office. As Jacques Chirac once explained of his relationship with his then-finance minister, a certain Sarkozy, “Je décide, il exécute.”
Somehow I grew into the role of directrice in our family. This was not by any particular choice on my part, although I have been accused at various times in my life of being a bossy boots, that is, of knowing my mind, having strong opinions and not being afraid to voice them. But someone has to be in charge and as no other candidates stepped up to the plate, it fell upon my shoulders to lead our pack. Unlike my mother-in-law, who ruled from behind the scenes with a velvet hammer, the only way I seem to be able to do this is through a more frontal approach.
“Mom, the recycling is full!”
“Someone’s at the door!”
“Where’s the wrapping paper? Do we have any gift tags?”
“Whose turn is it to walk the dogs?”
Never fear, I say, la directrice is here. “Take it out! Can you get that? It’s all gone, you’ll have to buy some! Yours!”
I rule our roost with snap decisions and clearly iterated instructions backed by foot stamping and a voice that carries. It’s not always pretty but it gets things done. What can I say? Like my hero, Tina Fey, some are born to lead.
Oh, and by the way, you can call me Madame la directrice.