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There are historical reasons for the lack of women in leadership positions in large Swiss companies

Long excluded from political life in Switzerland, women have only recently gained positions of power in the economy and are still very much in the minority when it comes to boardrooms and executive positions in large companies. For the seventh issue of the series Social Change in Switzerland, Stéphanie Ginalski looks back over history and describes how the current inequality has been socially constructed.

When compared to other European countries, Switzerland looks like the dunce standing in the corner when it comes to gender equality, even in relation to the elites. Statistics show that boards of directors in the largest Swiss companies have an average of only 13.9% women, less than in Spain or Italy, and almost three times fewer than in Norway! In her article "Women in leadership positions in large Swiss companies: an historical analysis of gender inequalities", published in French and German, Stéphanie Ginalski, a lecturer and researcher at the University of Lausanne, retraces the steps of the difficult and laborious rise of women within the Swiss economic oligarchy.

Until the early 1970s, Swiss women had neither the right to vote nor to stand in federal elections. This considerable delay when compared to other European countries still reverberates today in relation to the place of women in the economy, as the feminist struggle was monopolised by the voting issue, to the exclusion of other inequality issues. Up until that time, the very few women in leadership positions in companies were there for family reasons, and boardrooms were almost exclusively male bastions, based on a concept of co-optation where class and military rank were the important factors.

The "female card"

Having obtained the right to vote and to stand, some women began to break into the economic networks, mainly in the retail/mass distribution sector, where playing the "female card" was supposed to ensure a better fit between the strategy and the expectations of a predominantly female clientele. But it was only from the late 20th century onwards, with the advent of economic globalisation, that the proportion of women leaders really began to grow in the country's large corporations.

Today, it is mainly in public companies on the one hand, and in multinationals on the other that we see a genuine effort to improve the representation of women in the boardroom. The progress is due to the clearly indicated will of management to provide more male/female equality in the first instance, and more diversity in the second. But the debate about quotas, which would allow Switzerland to catch up, is still quite controversial at present and gives rise to significant opposition from economic circles.

>> Stéphanie Ginalski (2016). Les femmes à la tête des grandes entreprises suisses : une analyse historique des inégalités de genre / Frauen an der Spitze schweizerischer Grossunternehmen: Eine historische Analyse der Geschlechterungleichheiten. Social Change in Switzerland No 7. Retrieved from www.socialchangeswitzerland.ch

Contact: Stéphanie Ginalski, tel. 021 692 37 75, stephanie.ginalski@unil.ch

The series Social Change in Switzerland documents the evolution of Switzerland’s social structure. It is edited by the Swiss Centre of Expertise in the Social Sciences FORS, the Life Course and Inequalities Research Centre of the University of Lausanne LINES , and the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES – Overcoming Vulnerability: Life Course Perspectives (NCCR LIVES). The aim is to monitor change in employment, family, income, mobility, voting, or gender in Switzerland. Based on cutting edge empirical research, the series targets a wider audience than just academic experts.