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Parliament approves gender quotas for big business

justice minister
Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga advocating the changes on Thursday. Keystone

The Swiss parliament has voted for gender quotas in the boardrooms of large publicly-traded companies. They have between five and ten years to make the changes.

The vote in the House of Representatives, led by Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga, was tense and tight: in the end, Thursday’s result was swung by just a single vote (95 for, 94 against, three abstentions).

And if the result may be more symbolic than concrete – no sanctions are attached to non-adherence, rather an injunction to “explain” any failure to comply – the mere mention of the word “quota” represents a leap forward, Sommaruga told Swiss public broadcaster, RTS.

The decision will affect the largest publicly-traded companies in the country, potentially some 250 businesses. They must ensure that 30% of the Board of Directors and 20% of the Executive Board is female, over the next five and ten years respectively.

Currently, said Sommaruga, the corresponding figures are stuck at 10% and 20%.

+ Read about the background to these gender equality quotas

The issue led to long debates, heated interventions, and even an impromptu poetry recital (by Andrea Gmür-Schönenberger, a Christian Democrat in favour of the regulation) in the chamber on Thursday afternoon.

The conservative-right Swiss People’s Party were against the proposal, and said that they would vote against the entire package of business reform legislation within which the quotas are contained.

The centre-right Radical-Liberal party was also against the proposal, mainly for reasons of free-market integrity and the “insult” implied by “reducing woman to quotas”, in the words of one of its members.

Discussions around the finer details of the quotas and the business reform package will continue in the House on Friday.

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