Women debate "glass ceiling and sticky floor"

Men, and women, at work RDB

A new report on gender inequalities in employment made for interesting – if familiar – reading for 75 powerful women gathered in Bern this week.

This content was published on March 8, 2012 minutes
Jessica Dacey in Bern,

The study by George Washington University compared the situation in the United States and Switzerland and found that while both countries had their good and bad points, there was actually more gender equality in Switzerland.

The report was released to coincide with the US Embassy in Bern’s second annual “sister republics” conference on women in leadership.

Like the year before the conference drew a host of prominent American and Swiss women, from CEOs to newspaper editors and ambassadors. And as with the previous year, this was about high-powered networking with a view to sharing ideas.

“The glass ceiling, the sticky floor and the locked door are undermining women and undermining the kind of economic prosperity we all want for our republics,” Melody Barnes, a top domestic policy advisor to President Barack Obama until just last month, told the event.

Serving as a basis for discussion was the gender equality report, which pulled together a combination of available data on the two countries. It revealed “varying degrees of progress” in both, but found the US faces a greater challenge in gender equality than Switzerland. (see sidebar)

“Honestly I can say it’s different [in both countries]. I don't think one is necessarily better than the other but we do find that there is more gender equality in Switzerland. And I think a lot of Swiss women are surprised by this,” the report co-author, Michelle Kelso, told

“We were pleasantly surprised to hear how we can learn from one another in our areas of expertise. For example in the United States it’s a bit easier to advance on the career ladder than it seems to be in Switzerland. And in Switzerland it is better for women in that they have benefits provided for them if they choose not to work full-time.”

Swiss snapshot

As part of the report the George Washington University researchers also carried out a survey of 1,100 “highly educated” female and male professionals who had worked or were still working in Switzerland. Its central conclusion was that a majority of Swiss women and over half of men believe that gender is a factor in career advancement in Switzerland.

As could be expected, over two-thirds of Swiss women and men believe that having children negatively affects a women’s career. Some 78 per cent of women and 57 per cent of men believe women do not receive equal pay for equal work.

One surprising result was that neither Swiss women nor men support a quota system to guarantee greater representation of women in top management.

The issue of quotas was hotly debated. Irene Natividad, chair of Corporate Women Directors International, put the case that quotas helped accelerate change. Norway paved the way for other countries back in 2003, passing its quota law for women directors which resulted in the current 40 per cent female board representation in Norwegian listed companies.

Increasingly when this issue is raised people will cite research, such as the World Economic Forum’s 2010 Gender Gap Report, which found that the higher women representation on boards of directors leads to higher profits. This, however, was a “correlation not a causation”, Natividad noted.

Sharing the load

In keeping with employment issues, the women’s conference also touched on childcare, mentoring, certification of companies achieving gender equity, and the Swiss experience of part-time work. 

The event organiser, Megan Beyer, wife of the US ambassador to Bern, said the goal was to get women leaders together to “try to solve the problems of the glass ceiling and the problems we’re having balancing work and family”.

One of the ideas being taken away was the need for Swiss schools to have lunch programmes so parents don’t have to deal with the traditional headache of children returning home in the middle of the day.

Americans meanwhile picked up on the Swiss method of quantifying equality – an online certification process touted by the Federal Gender Equality Office and developed after a gender equality lawsuit that went before a Swiss court.

How to get ahead

The day was also a chance to share personal experiences. Like that of Isabelle Welton, IBM country manager for Switzerland. She shared a “how to get ahead” list she would have liked to have given her younger self. Among her tips were asking for candid feedback on performance, reading to keep your brain sharp and trusting your gut instincts.

And that of Vincenza Trivigno, the executive vice president at Stadler Rail – the only woman on the company’s executive board.

“Sometimes we talk about it, that we should improve diversity, but at the end of the day there is always the argument that there are not enough women with the qualifications needed to do a job in a railway company,” she told "I think people stick to an idea of what kind of CV a person should have and we are not flexible enough."


Economist Irenka Krone-Germann told the conference about her experience carving out a job-sharing situation so she could also look after her three children.

“I started to work part-time when I had my first child and I saw very quickly that I was missing out on a lot of opportunities, because they were saying I had to go back to working full-time. So I started to find other solutions.”

She brought other part-timers together with shared goals so they could begin to think about job-sharing. A programme manager at the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs, she is also backing an information campaign on the issue.

“It’s an unusual conference and it’s extraordinarily productive to find out how many shared experiences there are," concluded former White House Communication Director Anita Dunn.

"Also to talk to people with some cultural differences and who have some different kinds of ideas on how to approach some of the challenges ahead.”

Swiss snapshot

A study of 1,100 professionals with working experience in Switzerland  was carried out in 2011 by George Washington University, with support from the US Embassy in Bern. 85% of respondents were women. 70% had Bachelor’s degrees. 


79% of women believe gender is a factor in career advancement and just over half of men agree.

73% of women say there are barriers to women advancing in upper management in Switzerland. 61% of men do not agree.

Both sexes agree that men should be entitled to paternity leave, but they disagree over whether the 14-week statutory maternity leave, among the shortest in Europe, should be extended.

18% of men say parenthood is a career setback, but only 3% of women see fatherhood as a career detriment.

89% of women and two-thirds of men say having children negatively affects a woman’s career.

86% of respondents say school schedules should be changed to suit working parents.

89% of men and 54% of women reject a quota system for placing women in boardrooms.

50% of respondents work full-time (64% of men and 48% of women).

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Swiss-US comparison

The 2012 George Washington University report compared existing data  such as the World Values Survey on Switzerland and the US to compare gender equality.

Key points:

Swiss women are over-represented in low-paid jobs. In the US, women tend to work in lower-paying positions.

Swiss women at the top of the job hierarchy earn less than men at the same level. US women earn 77% of men’s earnings on average, but the wage gap is decreasing. 


40% of Swiss companies surveyed report having quotas to increase female employment, while there are none in the US.

Companies surveyed in both countries report few women CEOs. Only 11% of board members are women in Swiss companies and 7% are senior executives.

57% of Swiss women and 13% of men work part-time. Half of female staff do so for family reasons. In the US, two-thirds of all Americans work part-time, mostly for childcare or educational reasons. US part-timers earn less and have few benefits. 

In 2010 Swiss women earned an average of 18% less than men. 

The US has laws against discrimination in employment, allowing men and women to work the same hours, and retire at the same age.

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