In her book ‘Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead’, Sheryl Sandberg writes “In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders”. Yet, it may take some time before this becomes the case in Switzerland, because women are still underrepresented in managerial positions. Although the percentage of female directors has slowly risen to fifteen percent, the number of women on executive boards is as low as six percent. One thing is clear in Switzerland: gender diversity remains a distant goal.
Many Swiss women are working in part-time roles
This may come as a surprise to many here in Switzerland because at first glance, the representation of women on the Swiss job market looks good by international comparisons. Almost eighty percent of Swiss women are employed. This should, theoretically, provide the ideal premise to boost the proportion of women in the upper ranks. But, when one looks at the weekly hours that Swiss women work, the picture looks dramatically different. Six out of ten women are working part-time. Of this sixty percent, just under half of these women are holding a position with a work quota of less than 50 percent. By comparison, only sixteen percent of men are working part-time. So it would appear that part-time working arrangements are typical characteristics of gainfully employed women in Switzerland – and therein lies the problem. Under the current circumstances, part-time work often results in less attractive social security packages, because it is not possible to build up a reasonable pension and part-time employees also face discrimination when it comes to training opportunities. This in turn leads to poorer career prospects, because part-time positions are generally not the norm for mid- and upper-management roles.
The advantages of gender diversity
Women play an essential role in executive management. They bring a different set of leadership qualities to the table than their male counterparts. For instance, characteristics such as empathy, teamwork capacity, social competence, integration capacity, and communication have been attributed to women. Men, on the other hand, set themselves apart with their assertiveness, self-marketing, networking and decisiveness skills. A convergence of these female and male characteristics in a team results in a favourable mix. Mixed teams increase the revenues by forty one percent compared to single-gender teams.
1 According to McKinsey, companies that have a high representation of women at top management level, yield a return of more than ten percent above that of the sector average. 2 Credit Suisse also researched the advantages of gender diversity and found that more women in senior management lead to an overall improvement of the financial results and to higher market returns. As a general rule the more female CEOs, the higher the leverage. 3 A balanced proportion of women in executive positions results in the desired gender mix down the line, which evidently has many advantages. This is why it comes as a surprise that companies often do not avail themselves of female talent. Beyond this, it does not make any economic sense for highly qualified and expensively educated senior women to leave their careers behind after starting a family – which is too often the case. As a result of leaving the working force, these women do not contribute further to the financing of their own education, nor to the social welfare system of Switzerland. It is therefore obvious that neither society, nor the economy and its corporations,can afford to do without female talent. So, why do the best-educated women – including those without children – not feature in the executive suites?
There is no straightforward answer to this question, as the subject is very complex. The search for viable solutions is just as difficult. Gender diversity is not a one-dimensional issue, but instead calls for the interplay of all involved parties. I would like to list the five layers that, in my opinion, play a key role in achieving a higher representation of women in leading positions, without laying any claim to completeness.
The five layers
First and foremost, the most crucial layer is to consider the women themselves. Gender diversity can only be achieved if women want to be employed. Many are hesitant to take this step due to the lack of female role models. One study by Bain & Company revealed that this lack of role models is a key factor in influencing young female employees in doubting that they can make it to the top levels of the company (five years after being hired). An increased representation of women in senior level positions would clearly have a positive influence on young female talent. If a family and children are involved, female employees have to bring along organisational skills, along with a high degree of flexibility. They also depend on the framework conditions set within an organisation, which will be the decisive factors as to whether or not they can succeed in balancing their working and family life. The decisiveness of the political sector is crucial at this point– which represents in my opinion the second layer. If we want to reach a greater level of gender diversity, politicians must provide solutions for more day schools, as well as for more conveniently located nurseries. Studies have shown that women in countries with very well developed childcare services have an easier transition upwards in the hierarchy. Women are also better represented at executive levels. Another political issue that needs to be addressed is the problem of misdirected incentives, which render a second household income unattractive in Switzerland. Policymakers must ensure that such disincentives are not only abolished, but that there is an appropriate response to the demands of women in the workforce. The third layer for which there is a need for direct action is within the organisations and corporations. Women continue to encounter inflexible and unfriendly family working conditions. With the implementation of in-house company nurseries, attractive part-time working models or other creative solutions within the organisation, women and men are given the possibility to effectively balance their working and family lives. Alongside their female counterparts, an increasing number of male leaders are expressing their desires for such solutions. Beyond the improvement of flexible working conditions, companies can also review equal pay structures, recruitment and promotion practices, as well as accessibility to promotional and further training measures. In a nutshell: Women themselves, policy makers and organisations must work in the same direction. Yet this by itself will only take minimum effect if society as a whole does not start to adapt its mentality. This is the fourth layer. Our society is still stuck in archaic thinking patterns – over the decades we have acquired stereotypical images in our collective minds. A man who believes he is right is seen as persistent, yet a persistent woman is seen as obstinate. Female executives are often described as empathetic, understanding and permissive, but rarely as assertive. These stereotypes can lead to a practice in which leadership competencies are ascribed more frequently to men than to women. Society has to work on improving these stereotypical views, which has laid the groundwork for a difficult relationship with working women. In this regard, the media and its responsibilities to society must become more prominent – the media is the fifth and final level. The media has the responsibility to report realistically on working mothers, instead of portraying them as stereotyped uncaring figures. Women on boards and executive committees in this country should no longer be subject to conflicting pigeonholing statuses, nor should they be merely stamped as being ‘female’. In substitute for gossip on women’s hairstyles, or the colour of their outfits, the media should cover more of their professional achievements and successes. In my view, in order for gender diversity to become a reality, significant progress needs to be made on all five levels. This will only succeed if all of the parties involved work towards the same goal.
Solution approaches: an attempt
Many interesting solutions have been proposed which focus on gender diversity: women are encouraged to demonstrate more courage and self-confidence. They are encouraged to hesitate less when applying for a job for which their skillset does not match the job profile completely. On the contrary, women should demand more family-friendly conditions and equal opportunities. Even at home, early on in personal relationships, the first discussions should be taking place with partners as to how future career and family planning could be combined. Policy makers have to create a better framework for the compatibility of work and family life. They should provide day schools, meaningful and attractive incentives in the tax system and subsidies for nurseries for working parents. Organisations should provide equal promotion opportunities for women and men, flexible working models, part-time positions (also managerial), return-to-work offerings and internal childcare solutions. Organisations are no longer left to their own devices when facing these diversity challenges. One start-up that could help to achieve this is EDGE (Economic Dividends for Gender Equality). EDGE developed an evaluation tool that assesses equal wages, employment and promotional practices, access to further education and promotional possibilities, as well as flexible working conditions within organisations. Companies that comply with the standards set receive a gender diversity certificate. This is a great tool in my opinion. EDGE not only makes the organisations’ endeavours visible but accompanies companies on their road to improved equal opportunities for men and women – and paves the way for other companies to follow suit. This is another reason why the Müller-Möhl Foundation, with its priority theme of compatibility of work and family, has been working closely together with EDGE for some years. These measures can only take effect if society transforms itself as a whole. Society has to learn to accept working women and to rethink the accompanying new family structures. This is where the Media plays a key role. It should treat working mothers as normal and not depict them as icons of stress, engulfing them in stigma and clichés. The descriptions should shift from ‘career women’ to ‘employed women’ – or have you ever heard the term ‘career man’? One good example of this was the Müller-Möhl Foundation’s participation in the “Top 100 Business Women” ranking of the magazine Women in Business, which consisted of a very matter-of-fact description of the careers of 100 leading Swiss women. The intention behind this was to create role models in the media for other ambitious female talent.
Are quotas for Women a solution?
In addition to the listed solutions, there are many other worthwhile endeavours that strive to work toward gender equality. One suggestion, which I am rather critical of, is the implementation of the ‘Frauenquote’ – women’s quota. I struggle with the idea of a state-regulated quota because I think that this encroaches on corporate freedom. Even though I am sympathetic to the arguments made by its proponents, I do not feel that the quota system tackles the cause at heart. I am convinced that we can achieve more with the effective measures that I have outlined above, than with the implementation of women’s quotas. For this reason, and in the name of the Müller-Möhl Foundation, I stand for the implementation of the necessary framework measures for the successful compatibility of family and working life in Switzerland. I am strongly convinced that gender diversity can only be reached, and sustainably so, if everyone contributes to its development – women, men, policymakers, corporations, society and the media.