The question has raised its head following an interview with justice minister Simonetta Sommaruga in Migros Magazine in which she suggested a “soft quota” could be applied to gender as it is to language and geographic region when electing members of the seven-person Federal Council, the Swiss government executive.
Sommaruga and Swiss President Doris Leuthard are currently the only two women in the Federal Council.
When Sommaruga was elected in 2010 it created a female majority in the Federal Council for the very first time in its history. That only lasted a year, but was generally considered “a good year for our country”, said Sommaruga.
If Leuthard steps down in 2019, as is expected, and a woman is not elected in her place then Sommaruga could become the only woman in government.
Speaking to Migros Magazine, Sommaruga said it was important that the Federal Council reflect the structure of the Swiss population, not only its regions and languages, but gender too.
“It is important that the population can identify with the Federal Council in their diversity, so there needs to be more than one woman in the Federal Council,” she said.
Asked if quotas should be imposed, she said “We already have several soft quotas for the Federal Council,” citing the election rules which require the government to respect the regional and linguistic diversity of Switzerland, as well as a balance of its political parties.
“Why not also for gender ratio?” she told the magazine.
The current Federal Council and Chancellor. Photo: AFP
Women in Switzerland were only allowed to vote and stand for public office in 1971.
Switzerland's remarkably late granting of women's suffrage means, statistically, only six percent of all federal councillors have been women, according to a recent analysis by RTS.
The issue was discussed during the recent election of Ignazio Cassis, who was up against Pierre Maudet and Isabelle Moret to replace outgoing foreign minister Didier Burkhalter.
Cassis' triumph was seen to address another imbalance in the Federal Council – the Ticino native would ensure representation for Switzerland's Italian-speaking regions, which hadn't had a representative in the government executive since 1999.
Green MP Maya Graf wants to see the representation of language regions anchored in the constitution and has put forward a parliamentary initiative on the subject.
Speaking to 20 Minuten, Graf said she was very pleased to hear Sommaruga's comments and called for change regarding gender representation.
“It is poor testament to our democracy that women, who make up half of voters, are not adequately represented in the state government,” she told the paper.
It would be appropriate to have at least three women in the Federal Council at any one time, she told the paper, saying the government needs “female experiences and competencies” to help ensure solutions for the whole of society.
By anchoring gender ratio in the constitution the country's political parties would be forced to promote and choose women.
But not everyone is in favour.
Barbara Steinemann, an MP with the Swiss People's Party (SVP), told the paper that gender was not a criteria for her, and that being a convincing candidate was more important.
“I would rather have a qualified council consisting only of men than one with four mediocre women,” she said.
Introducing gender quotas would only open the door to further quotas on “homosexuals and naturalized secondos [second generation immigrants]” she added.
“If a woman is competent and can convince, she can walk into the Federal Council with no problems,” she said.
However, in her interview with Migros Magazine, Sommaruga pointed out that workplace attitudes often prevented women from getting into politics and high level roles.
The working world should adapt to allow families more choice in how they balance private and professional life, she said in the wide ranging interview in which she also talked about the government's action to decrease wage inequality and expressed her support for equal marriage.