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Breaking through the corporate glass ceiling

UBS chairman Marcel Ospel conducts the last general assembly with an all-male board Keystone Archive

Gabrielle Kaufmann-Kohler, a lawyer from French-speaking Switzerland, was recently elected onto the UBS board of directors at the bank's annual general meeting.

This content was published on May 21, 2006 - 14:07

The number of women in top management positions and on company boards is growing, but at the current rate corporate gender equality will not be achieved until 2076.

"I am proud to have been chosen by one of the flagships of the Swiss economy. I am also honoured to be the first women to be elected onto the UBS board following the merger," Kaufmann-Kohler said.

The 54-year-old, who is an expert in international law and arbitration, believes her election will add a sense of diversity to the boardroom "as the only lawyer, as someone from the French-speaking part of Switzerland and as a woman".

On April 6, Nestlé elected a second woman onto its board of directors – Naina Lal Kidwa from India – to join Carolina Müller-Möhl.

Other high-flying women include Monika Ribar Baumann, a member of the Bank Julius Bär executive board, Inga Kristine Beale, the new chief executive officer of reinsurer Converium, and Jasmin Staiblin, recently nominated chair of ABB Switzerland's management committee.

Skills

The list of female board members or top managers is short but growing. Companies are being forced to improve their governance structures – and their diversity – to become global players.

But according to Dominique Freymond, a corporate governance consultant, board members' heavy workload ensures that women are not being nominated merely as window-dressing.

"Kaufmann-Kohler has been nominated for her skills and for reasons of complementarity," Freymond added.

"Women are bolder decision-makers [than men]. They have a more global outlook that allows them not to become distracted by things such as computers. Also, they are more trusting of their own judgement."

But the number of women in Swiss top management positions remains low. A study by the Swiss investment fund provider Ethos shows that six per cent of board directors are women, or eight per cent for the 26 firms on the Swiss stock exchange.

Freymond said things are changing gradually but not everywhere. "In mass marketing and beauty and luxury product industries it's crucial to have women in management positions to be able to gain a better insight into the respective market. This is much harder in other businesses, such as the computer industry."

Solutions

As for solutions, Kaufmann-Koller feels quotas can be counterproductive.

"I am more in favour of 'flexible' quotas," she said. "When you have two applicants with the same skills, I believe that you should choose the female candidate."

All that is left is to increase the pool of female businesswomen. But this is not determined simply by a company's family policy, as the socio-economic status of female managers and board members allows them to deal with any lack of childcare.

"It's a question of educating people," management expert Monique Siegel told swissinfo. "We need to tell young girls that they too can aspire to become a board director of a top company."

Freymond suggests giving women "proper training and having a better recruitment process in order to extend the pool of qualified female candidates".

However, she remains optimistic about the "pressure from the general public, the media and companies representing investment funds or investors who want more female top managers".

swissinfo, Isabelle Eichenberger

Key facts

Women's share of management jobs worldwide is 20-40%.
Women's participation in parliaments averages 16.3 per cent (25% in Switzerland).
Women make up 20% of Swiss diplomatic staff, but there are only ten women ambassadors. 6% of Swiss board directors are women, or 8% for the 26 firms on the Swiss stock exchange.

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In brief

In 2005 Switzerland came 34th in the World Economic Forum's "Gender Gap Index".

The report covered all 30 OECD countries and 28 other emerging markets and measures the gap between women and men in five areas: economic participation, economic opportunity, political empowerment, educational attainment, health and well-being.

In autumn 2005, the House of Representatives accepted a parliamentary initiative asking to increase female participation in company boardrooms where the state is a shareholder.

Women's participation in parliaments averages 16.3% (25% in Switzerland).

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