How to Improve Switzerland’s Ranking in Best Environment for Working Women

career development d&i strategies gender diversity motherhood Mar 06, 2018

I may be competitive but 26th place for the best environment for working women is not an acceptable statistic for Switzerland. How can a country whose public system and quality of life outstrips so many other countries, be so poor at providing an environment where women can thrive professionally?

Unfortunately it’s not completely surprising – we’ve been hearing many reasons why, since training and coaching here in Switzerland for 7 years – from whom? Professionals trying to effectively juggle professional and family life, who often feel the odds are stacked against them here. I appreciate that this statistic is not driven wholly by parents but given that 67% of the working population in Europe are parents, it is worth exploring how this pool of talent greatly influences the data.

Let’s start with child care costs...

Is it a surprise that 35% of mothers decide not to return post maternity leave in Switzerland? When you are weighing up your options and overcoming the challenge of finding a place at a crèche (there are limited crèche places with long waiting lists in many cities in Switzerland), many parents ask themselves “is it worth it financially?”. If these parents really enjoy their working environment, one which is truly inclusive, where you feel valued and you know you have a fulfilling career ahead of you, there is a strong emotional pull to return.

However, if women have witnessed how mothers are often ‘downgraded’ on their return and there are no inspiring leaders demonstrating how it is possible to have both a thriving career and family, the fact that you will lose 41% of your salary so someone else can look after your child, has a greater bearing. This problem is often exasperated here in Switzerland which is home to many foreign professionals who are away from family and friends, so cannot call on them for support for child care or when the child is sick and cannot go to crèche.

Moving onto maternity leave. Looking at Switzerland – just less than 8 weeks of paid maternity leave.

8 weeks after your child is born, you are typically coming out of the “fog” where getting out of the house with both of you dressed (and remembering all the baby paraphernalia) in less than one hour, is an achievement.

You may be breastfeeding and you don’t want to stop - yet financially or legally, you have to return. Many organisations underestimate the importance of a mother’s right to choose when to stop breastfeeding your child. If it is not seen as possible or associated with too much judgement culturally in the organisation, women will choose breast over boss. The irony is that organisations are driven by financial reasons for not extending paid parental leave. Yet when the cost of replacing that mother is 3-5 times their salary, it costs more to lose these individuals.

If we move onto the mothers who do decide to return to work – what is important to many of them? Often the driver for return (aside from financials, especially in single parent families) is the desire to continue growing in their career. However, the reality is often different as the graph below shows. Just over a 1/3 of women hold managerial roles.

Why? Again, several reasons. On their return, many parents opt out of potential leadership roles if their organisation does not advocate for flexible working – if it is a challenge balancing everything with the current role, why make it harder for yourself by increasing the level of responsibility at work? Many women explain that they have to take the role of carer and cannot share the ‘mental load’ that comes with balancing family and work. Why? For those in mixed sex couples, fathers in Switzerland who want to be ‘hands-on’ are facing the challenges women have faced for years. The stage is set by the lack of value associated with the role of a ‘hands-on’ father - labour law does not provide any paternity leave. As one father put it to me, “I had to get off the fast train to the slow train, to allow me to be the Dad I want to be”.

Another reason why there are less women in managerial positions? Their manager has made the decision for them through their own assumptions and biases – too often we hear how managers do not consider mothers for projects or roles because they assume the individual would not want to (benevolence bias), or they would not be able to deliver results.

Often what influences women to position themselves for promotion is inspiring female role models – those women who do make it on boards and hold onto their values and authenticity at the same time. The challenge here in Switzerland is that women hold 17.1% of seats on boards and of course, of that number, I have no idea how many fit the “inspiring role model”.

Why do I and Natalie, the co-founder of Thriving Talent care so much? We have 4 daughters between us, all of whom are receiving an excellent education here in the local system, studying hard and firmly believe that anything is possible if you work hard. My eldest Olivia who plays for the local football team BRP, would not believe for one moment if I told her that most of her teammates will have an immediate advantage over her when she hits her late 20s – purely because of their sex. On my part, I don’t want that to become her reality, hence our drive to help both parents and organisations change this picture today.

So what is the solution? As always in the quest for true inclusivity and diversity, there are many solutions needed from many players but there are 3 key stakeholders:

1. Working Parents 

Accompanying the transition to parenthood requires a change in assumptions, beliefs, behaviour and motivations on the part of the parents concerned. Carrying on as before is not an option, changes and compromises are needed - requiring courageous conversations at home and at work!

2. Organisations and Employers

Organisations and employers significantly improve the retention and engagement of this pool of talent if they offer flexible working practices and they pay attention to the transition in and out of a parental leave. Training Managers on their crucial role to facilitate this period of change, to maximise the likelihood of women returning and opting into leadership AND supporting Fathers to embrace their role practically, is a key success factor.

3. Government

In October 2017, the Federal Council recommended that people vote against an initiative, which proposes the right to a paid paternity leave of at least four weeks, to be taken within the first 12 months of a child's life. This negative recommendation was the outcome despite the fact that more than 107,000 signatures were gathered in support of the initiative and a 2015 opinion poll carried out showed that 80% of Swiss voters were in favour of some kind of paid paternity leave. Instead, the seven-member executive branch said they wanted to focus on the need for more affordable and accessible child care options outside the home. Actually, both are required. As Sylvie Durrer, Director of Swiss Federal Office for Gender Equality advised, “there is a momentum in Switzerland for more gender equality in society”. This social pressure needs to provoke changes in the law and transform the outdated models which exist today.


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Thriving Talent is driven to be creative, collaborative and consult with as many groups as possible to bring about long term positive change, in Switzerland and in Europe. Get in touch if you would like support to bring about this change.

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