Glass ceiling: report highlights huge gender divide on Swiss boards

Swiss women only won the right to vote in 1971 but the country has come a long way since then when it comes to equality between the sexes.

Glass ceiling: report highlights huge gender divide on Swiss boards
Photo: Depositphotos

However, while women now make up just under half of all employees in a country where stay at home mums used to be the order of the day, they continue to be seriously underrepresented in top company roles, as a new study carried out by Business Monitor shows.

Women hold just 23.6 percent of all decision-making roles in the country's firms and the gender imbalance is ever more marked on company boards, the study into 900,000 Swiss firms from 2008 to 2018 reveals.

Read also: 14 fascinating facts about the history of women's rights in Switzerland

Only 16.68 percent of seats on the boards of Swiss limited companies are filled by women and that drops to less than one in ten (8.9 percent) for board presidents.

By comparison, 21.1 percent of board positions were held by women in Germany in 2015. That figure was 34 percent in France and 22.8 percent in the UK, according to a 2016 Credit Suisse report.

In terms of overall decision-making roles in Switzerland, there are big differences between sectors, but even in industries with a high percentage of female employees, the vast majority of key positions are held by men.

Women hold 77 percent of all jobs in the health sector, for example, but occupy just 36.7 percent of decision-making positions. For education, women make up 55 percent of the workforce but can only lay claim to a third of all key roles.

At the bottom end of the scale, just 10.5 percent of decision-making roles in the energy industry are held by women.

A mixed report card

Switzerland was ranked in the 2016 World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report as the 11th most gender equal country in the world and sixth in Europe, but down three places from a year earlier.

In 1981 gender equality and equal pay for equal work was enshrined in the Swiss constitution. Nevertheless, there is still a recognized 19.3 percent gender pay gap in Switzerland, against a European average of 16.4 percent, according to London-based business comparison site Expert Market.

The Swiss government put that figure at 7.4 percent in 2017.

The Swiss upper house only last week rejected a cabinet proposal designed to reduce the pay gap in the country despite recognising the fact that the current law needs an overhaul.

Read also: Initiative for quota in federal government rejected

The rejected inititative would have seen firms with over 50 employees regularly required to provide public information on pay for both women and men. Firms that failed to ensure equal pay would not have been fined but would have had to ensure salaries were levelled out.

But after politicians in the upper house rejected the plan, the proposal will go back to the drawing board with supporters fearing that a decaffeinated version of the initiative will result.

For members


Should stay-at-home parents in Switzerland be paid a salary?

A new Swiss divorce ruling sparks a proposal that parents who stay at home and take care of children while the other spouse works, should be compensated by the government.

Should stay-at-home parents in Switzerland be paid a salary?
Housework should be compensated by the government, some say. Photo by Guillaume Suivant / AFP

What is the new divorce rule?

Switzerland’s highest court has handed down a decision removing the responsibility of an employed spouse to financially support the partner who has not worked outside of home during marriage.

While the ruling doesn’t mention gender, it particularly affects women.

Specifically, the court lifted the so-called “45-year-old rule”, under which stay-at-home spouses were not obligated to support themselves after divorce, if they were over 45 years old.

In its ruling, the court said that “the possibility of gainful employment must always be assumed” regardless of age, though exemptions could be made in some situations, including care of small children, lack of professional experience, and health.

How has this ruling spawned off the idea of compensating stay-at-home parents?

It came from a Swiss writer and editor Sibylle Stillhart who said in an interview that “finding a well-paying job after not having been employed at all or only part-time for years is not easy, if not impossible”.

She added that taking care of housework and children, requires 58 hours a week of “unpaid labour”.

What does she propose?

She said the state should pay income for domestic work.

“This way, if a couple separates and the woman finds herself with her dependent children and no salaried work, she would nevertheless be supported by the community for the services rendered, in particular for the education of the children who, later, will also contribute to national prosperity through their work”.

Stillhart suggested that a monthly salary of 7,000 francs for a family with two children is fair.

“Don’t tell me that Switzerland is not rich enough for that “, she added.

READ MORE: ‘Unprecedented crisis’: New figures show stark impact of pandemic on all Swiss job sectors

Is this likely to happen?

Rudolf Minsch, economist at Economiesuisse, an umbrella organisation of Swiss businesses, said the proposal is not realistic.

“This would lead to massive tax increases. And it would not be profitable from the point of view of equality between men and women at the professional level, because women could be satisfied with this income and no longer seek to enter the labour market”, he said.

Is this idea new?

Not quite. While it’s the first one of its kind to be created as a response to new divorce rulings, the idea of basic income for everyone in Switzerland was floated around before.

On June 5, 2016, Swiss voters rejected the initiative “For an unconditional basic income”, which proposed that each resident receive 2,500 francs a month, regardless of whether they are employed or not. 

 All the cantons had said no, as had 76.9 percent of the population.

A few cantons stood out by being more open to the idea, such as Basel-City (36 percent in favour), Jura (35.8 percent) and Geneva (34.7 percent).

Despite this rejection, the idea continues to circulate in Switzerland and internationally.

READ MORE: What do teachers earn in Switzerland – and where do they earn the most?