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Quotas could help businesswomen to the top

Women are still finding it hard to get ahead in the business world

(Keystone)

Since gaining the vote in 1971, women have become accepted in Swiss political life. But they are still lagging behind in the world of business.

This week parliament is to vote on an initiative calling for minimum quotas for women on the management boards of companies part-owned by the government.

The initiative was proposed by Social Democrat parliamentarian Barbara Haering, who wants to see quotas enshrined in company law.

“In the case of a firm in which the Swiss government holds shares, at least 30 per cent of board members must be from the under-represented sex,” it stipulates.

If the initiative becomes law, companies will have five years in which to comply.

Female inequality

While women have made inroads into Swiss politics and now occupy a quarter of the seats in parliament, it is a different story in the world of business.

A report issued by the Federal Statistics Office earlier this year showed that moves towards greater equality had ground to a halt.

There has been no narrowing of salary differences between men and women since 1998. Women still earn 21 per cent less than men in the private sector, and 11 per cent less in the public sector.

And 70 per cent of women working in the business world do not hold a managerial post.

While the law demands that gender equality be respected, the reality has not yet caught up.

“Clearly the strategy of ‘soft’ laws, directives, goodwill and patience has achieved nothing over the past few years,” said Haering.

Men only

The Zurich parliamentarian points out that none of the former nationalised industries privatised by the government has a woman in top management.

Management is a men-only affair at the national airline Swiss and the armaments manufacturer Ruag, while Swiss Post, Swiss Federal Railways and Swisscom have a token female presence on their boards of directors.

Haering argues that it is up to the government to lead by example by implementing change at the companies in which it has a stake.

“Women are very clearly under-represented in business, even though women are gaining higher and higher levels of training and experience,” said Patricia Schulz, head of the Federal Equality Office.

Schulz told swissinfo that she thought a 30 per cent quota for women was realistic.

The fact that companies would be given five years to comply with the legislation was another reason in its favour, she added.

Rightwing opposition

While the idea of a quota has the support of the Centre-left and feminists, it is opposed by the Centre-right.

A centre-right minority within the legal commission, which is submitting the initiative to parliament, rejected setting rigid quotas, arguing that they could be counterproductive.

“Quotas in politics are too rigid, and in business they are totally unacceptable as they limit the freedom of the private sector,” said Liberal Party representative Jacques-Simon Eggly, who opposed the introduction of a quota system.

“Equality is not something which can be worked out mathematically,” said Eggly.

The Swiss Federation of Trade Unions is also concerned about the issue of female under-representation in the upper levels of management, and in business generally.

But the climate for change is not favourable. The rightwing Swiss People’s Party has launched numerous attacks against the federal and cantonal equality offices, accusing them of spending too much money.

But Schulz points out that “quotas are permitted by a United Nations convention insofar as they are ‘special temporary measures’”.

“Switzerland has ratified this convention and thereby stated its intention to take active measures,” she said.

swissinfo, Isabelle Eichenberger

Key facts

In 1971 women gained full voting rights in Switzerland.
A federal law on equality came into force in 1996.
On January 1, 2004, women held a quarter of all seats in parliament.
Women earn 21% less than men in the private sector, and 11% less in the public sector.
70% of businesswomen do not hold a managerial position.

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