Women's March on Versailles
Engraving of the Women's March on Versailles, Oct. 5, 1789 Bibliothèque Nationale de France
Women's March on Versailles, 1789
Engraving of the Women's March on Versailles, 5 October 1789 Bibliothèque nationale de France

Two years after France passed affirmative action legislation demanding that the country’s largest employers and all publicly listed French companies place more women on company boards, the number of women directors has roughly doubled. Furthermore, the 2014 target quota has already been more than met.

"France has raised the bar for other countries interested in opening up corporate boardrooms to women," said Irene Natividad, chair of the Washington-based international research group Corporate Women Directors International, or CWDI, which released its findings on Friday.

In 2010, the share of women serving on French corporate governing boards was estimated to be between 12 percent and 14 percent, according to the European Working Conditions Laboratory. Today, that figure has risen to just over 25 percent. The law aims at boosting that figure to 40 percent by 2020, a quota that has already been met by other European countries with similar legislation: Norway, Spain, the Netherlands, Iceland, Italy and Belgium.

The French law, passed in January 2011, covers all publicly listed companies on Paris’ CAC 40 stock index, companies with more than 500 employees or €50 million ($66 million) in turnover over the previous three years, industrial companies and state-owned enterprises. Exempt are universities and administrative institutions. Board candidates must be divided 50-50 with a difference of one candidate.

Finland has managed to get its female representation on corporate boards to 22 percent without quota laws, mainly because Finnish companies took the initiative themselves to install diversity oversight as part of their corporate governance.

Women occupy about 15 percent of all board seats in the Fortune 200 largest companies in the world, but that figure is higher, nearly 19 percent, for companies based in countries with these quota laws.

So where does the U.S. stand?

CWDI estimates that women occupy just shy of 21 percent of all board seats. A 2011 study by the Washington-based Committee for Economic Development said the percentage of women filling Fortune 500 companies board seats stood at 16 percent.

The U.S. joins China and Japan in having the lowest rate of growth for women-held board seats among the Fortune 200 companies, which is significant considering that companies from these countries make up just over half of the Fortune 200 list.

Canada, too, isn’t faring too well in this growth. A study released Tuesday by Catalyst Inc. said women’s share of senior official positions in Canada’s 500 largest companies has only edged up from 13 percent to 15 percent between 2002 and 2012.