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Promote women, not quotas!

By Petra Jantzer

Germany has introduced a legally binding 30% boardroom quota for women. This decision has once again added fuel to the debate about quotas and the promotion of women. Do quotas make a difference in the long run? Alternatively, are they just ‘door openers’?

By Petra Jantzer, partner at McKinsey consultancy firm

Norway’s example shows that even though the 40% boardroom quota for women has been achieved, nothing has really changed in the lower echelons of companies: the hoped-for “trickledown effect” has not kicked in.

The percentage of women in middle management remains almost unchanged, and the income difference still stands at 15% below that of top management. For this reason, it is extremely important to promote women at all levels. The fact that mixed teams achieve better results is an undisputed fact, which we also experience in our very own project teams.

Promoting women is not only a must for businesses, but also for the economy. Switzerland loses a significant share of its educational investment and resources by not properly using women’s professional potential. That is not good.

Here is an example: in 1989, 34% of university graduates were women. The fact that 25 years later only 6% showed up in management positions and 13% on boards of directors is sobering and does not correspond to what would actually be possible.

From an economic point of view, promoting women is an important tool combating the shortage of skilled labour, which could also counterbalance the immigration debate.

Having one of the highest employment rates among women (after Iceland and Sweden, Switzerland ranks 3rd), Switzerland certainly has potential. However, 60% of working women only work part-time and about half of them do so due to their family responsibilities. Many women would be prepared to work more. However, childcare issues often don’t make it possible. This is where Switzerland loses out.

If men and women were more equally distributed across jobs and hierarchical levels, it would be easier for all electoral groups to gain more insight and have a better understanding of the economic issues in a country with direct democracy.

Wrong approach

Results from Norway and other examples have shown that we are not just fighting against a glass ceiling that protects top management positions, but the job pipeline has lots of leaks. Many companies lose women at all career levels. And depending on the level, men are two to five times as likely as their female counterparts to climb the career ladder.

However, temporarily inflating the top level with ‘quota women’ does not work in the long run. Company initiatives, which are not embedded in the business process, will not do the trick either. A McKinsey study comparing more than 200 European companies showed that even though two-thirds of firms had implemented a multitude of promotion measures, they still had little or no effect.

Where to start?

First, promotional measures must be fully integrated into businesses and must not be broken down into parallel programmes. Management has to make promoting women a priority. And it should enjoy a similar development as compliance, whose structures were only first outlined 10 years ago. Today, compliance is an integral part of every company.

Evaluation systems must not be to women’s disadvantage. A global survey of 1,400 managers conducted by McKinsey shows that this is still the case and most evaluations are tailor-made for male careers (e.g. flexi-time is not compatible with management positions).

Adapting management styles is urgently needed. More than 40% of the surveyed women claim that the management and communications styles of women are not compatible with that of the business. While women are quickly branded as being “bossy”, men in the same situation are considered “strong leaders”. In her book “Lean in” former McKinsey consultant Sheryl Sandberg calls this phenomenon “unconscious bias“. It is interesting that the same behaviour of men and women is perceived differently – by both sexes.

Male mentor

The promotion of women only works with the engagement and support of men. Women-only programmes or networks often lead to greater isolation than integration into the business world.

This is where Advance-Women in Swiss Business comes in. Numerous leading Swiss companies have joined this network to promote their female colleagues. It serves as a platform to exchange human resource programmes, conduct specific training and carry out cross-company mentoring programmes - all done by male mentors. But the percentage of female top managers will only increase in the mid-term and gender diversity will only be strengthened in Switzerland, if companies and their top management actively support it.

Many women need a huge boost in their self-confidence. Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sandberg writes on this issue: “We stop ourselves in big and small ways because we lack self-confidence; because we don’t raise our hands; and because we lean back when we should lean forward and throw ourselves into a task.”

One thing is clear – companies have to take over their responsibilities, and so must politics and society. When it comes to female promotion, the Swiss way of thinking is still a lot more conservative than in other parts of Europe, we even lag behind when it comes to framework conditions.

The female percentage on boards of directors, in management or CEO positions is almost three times as high in countries like Sweden or Belgium. These countries do not have a legally binding quota but deem it culturally necessary to promote women and offer sufficient childcare opportunities.

This should be a great incentive for Switzerland to better use the huge potential of women, without quota pressure.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of swissinfo.ch. 

Opinion series

swissinfo.ch publishes op-ed articles by contributors writing on a wide range of topics – Swiss issues or those that impact Switzerland. The selection of articles presents a diversity of opinions designed to enrich the debate on the issues discussed.

McKinsey consulting


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