By Hana Skreta, Principal, Zurich
A new company law came into force early last year in Switzerland. After several years of discussions and failed reform attempts, Swiss parliament adopted a new act under corporate law where gender equality quotas would be introduced. After a transitional period, it requires listed companies domiciled in Switzerland to comply with gender benchmarks: 30% of boards of directors and 20% of executive boards should be women.
According to the Federal Statistical Office, the gender split in Swiss companies in non-management roles is around 50-50, but 83% of top level managers and 77% of middle level managers in Switzerland are men. In addition to this, the Federal Statistical Office reports on average, women earn about 18% less than men in Switzerland. The reasons for this pay gap are various. Based on an analysis, 56% of the gap can be explained by factors such as professional status, years of service or qualifications, while 44% of the gap remains ‘unexplained’. Gender diversity is not a new narrative in Swiss corporate culture. In 1996, the Equal Opportunities Act came into effect in Switzerland and this focused on ensuring equality in working life as well as prohibiting all forms of discrimination.
Historically Switzerland has differed from its European neighbours in its recognition of women however. In 2021, Swiss women celebrated only 50 years of the vote in federal elections. They gained this democratic right on 7 February 1971; nearly 26 years after women in Italy, 53 years after Germany and 27 years after France.
The Swiss talent pool is gender diverse, and as a country it can celebrate no shortage of female talent. 52% of all university masters degrees and 54% of university of applied sciences masters degrees go to women; already 36% of all graduates in business administration are women, 38% in natural sciences and 32% in technical disciplines, says the Federal Statistical Office.
Marta Ra, co-founder at Women In Sustainable Finance (WISF), met her co-founders during an education programme at the University of Zurich “We shared our experiences working in a male dominated industry,” says Ra. “We were concerned about the implications it would have on our society and the planet . At the same time, we observed that women have an elevated interest in sustainability related topics in comparison to men, while at the same time we observed that we were able to gain traction in this particular field, especially sustainable finance.”
Switzerland is globally connected and graduates are in high demand. The Zurich area owes some of its economic success to the educational institutions that feed it. The Swiss education system is built on the ethos that learning is for all and knowledge and research should be shared. The university system is known for its forward thinking culture, and this culture allows for a high degree of autonomy and responsibility at all levels, and such a culture provides the optimal environment for intrinsically motivated people, not only attracting the best of the best but also delivering well rounded individuals to feed the ever growing elite workforce in the country. Somewhere between such a diverse, driven and successful education system plus the early years of joining the workforce, the diversity message is significantly diluted. “We were, and still are, convinced that combining capital and female energy makes a difference” says Ra. “At WISF we live a true spirit of collaboration, trust, and understanding instead of competition,we share our experience within the community with other like minded people. A high percentage of promotions tend to happen to employees in their 30’s and it is no coincidence that this is often the time a woman might take a break from the workforce. Understanding that over half of all Masters degrees in Switzerland are awarded to women, the economic impact of the diversity divide must be very significant.” Marta’s network has the goal to transform the financial industry and to continue to inspire women who share the vision of WISF , of a sustainable and inclusive world. WISF believes in empowering other like minded women to have a powerful impact through their actions.