The evidence is overwhelming. Study after study has shown that empowering women in the workforce encourages growth in economies and benefits companies’ earnings. Yet women are still relatively rare in the top echelons of Swiss business.
Only 4 percent of the CEOS of companies surveyed in this year’s Schilling report is female. At the executive board level, just 8 percent are women. That is double the proportion of 2006, but not nearly enough, says Simona Scarpaleggia, CEO of IKEA Switzerland, co-founder of the advocacy group Advance – Women in Swiss Business, and a member of the UN’s High-Level Panel on Women’s Empowerment.
“This is connected to a shortage of women in the pipeline,” Scarpaleggia says. “Switzerland is socially conservative and there is a view that mothers need to be at home to take care of their children. There is also little structural support. Women are hired, but they drop off or take part-time work after they have children.”
A “Gender Intelligence Report” conducted by Advance and the University of St. Gallen showed that both men and women pay a severe penalty in terms of career advancement if they switch to part-time work. As more women work part-time, they are more affected. Asked what single move would be the most effective in encouraging more Swiss women to climb the career ladder, Scarpaleggia is quick to respond.
“Change the school schedule,” she says. The fact that children are expected to go home to a lunch cooked by their mother is “a great pity for young women in an early stage of their careers,” she says. “There are ways around it – like sending children to a private school or by employing a nanny, but not everyone can afford that.”
Women are better represented in the public sector than in business, Scarpaleggia says. She welcomes a 2016 charter introduced by the Swiss government requiring public-sector signatories to carrying out regular checks on equal pay for equal work. Yet cantons and municipalities have been slow to sign up, in some cases arguing that the cost will be too high.
Areas of strength in the Swiss economy such as pharmaceuticals and engineering have been male bastions for decades. To change this, it is important for schools to encourage more girls in science, technology and maths, Scarpaleggia says. But she notes that in areas where Switzerland is equally strong – such as banking – plenty of women are studying the relevant subjects and there is potential for flexible working hours.
The Swiss business world is slowly waking up to the need for change. Advance started out with just six member companies; now it has more than 70. Companies like IKEA are leading the way. The Swiss branch of IKEA achieved a company-wide goal of a gender-balanced management and equal pay six years ahead of schedule. It has also created better conditions for men by granting paid paternity leave of up to two months.
“A gender-balanced workforce brings a wealth of advantages,” Scarpaleggia says. “You have a better working environment and more closeness to customers.”