No women’s careers without career women

In the sometimes fierce and venomous debate around the increasing immigration of qualified labour to Switzerland, one aspect is consistently suppressed. If the potential of good and expensively trained women were made better use of, many open positions could easily be filled and thus a major contribution to the growth of our economy be made. This would require a change of thinking, however. More flexible working models and creative solutions, better child care facilities and tax measures are needed if women are not to be forced to choose between family and career. And everybody needs to pull together: businesses, society, politicians, the media and last but not least women themselves.

The summoned media representatives were rubbing their eyes in wonder. At the end of November the Swiss postal service presented its successor to post office director Jürg Bucher, who will leave in September 2012. The surprise was that the successor was a successoress. When Susanne Ruoff stepped up in front of the media, a murmur went through the room. What was not clear was whether the murmur came from the fact that Ruoff was unknown and not on the list of candidates or simply the fact that she was a woman.

Ruoff is not the only woman who came apparently from nowhere to be appointed head of an organisation otherwise dominated by men. Monika Ribar, head of the Basel logistics giant Panalpina, even made it onto the list of the world’s 50 most influential women managers in the Financial Times. All the same, she is in 25th place.
Not far from the Schönburg, the headquarters of the Swiss postal service, Jeannine Pilloud has been working as head of the most important sector of Swiss railways, passenger transport.
Three women, all in the field of logistics, who have made it to the very top. And this in an industry where they fight with their gloves off and men’s networks traditionally rule. Pilloud, Ribar and Ruoff at the head of three well-known Swiss organisations and, for the last four years at least, a majority of women in Switzerland’s highest political caucus, the Federal Council. So have we now achieved what generations of committed women have been working for? Do women and men have equal opportunities when it comes to filling leading positions in politics and business, and at the same rate of pay?

We should be so lucky. The examples of successful “career women”, which is still a derogatory term to many people, distort our view of a reality that has not fundamentally changed in the last few years.

Numbers are gender-neutral and they prove that in spite of a few success stories not a lot has happened in the last ten years in terms of the representation of women at management level in business or in the highest circles of political life.

The proportion of women in senior management in Switzerland is only just 5%, and in the administrative boards things are only a little better. 10% of all administrative board members are women. Particularly sobering is the balance in the financial sector. In the corporate management and administrative boards of the five biggest Swiss banks there are a total of 92 men – and only 8 women. Since 2005 these numbers have hardly shifted in favour of women. At the same time the proportion of foreign management personnel has grown markedly in Switzerland.

Business leaders and politicians are always emphasising how important it is to make optimum use of the potential of well-trained Swiss men and women and ensure that wide sections of the population have an above-average education so as to be prepared for today’s employment market. Unfortunately this is more hot air than concrete results.

We can do the calculation fast and simply. 50% of all people are women; in fact slightly more in Switzerland. There are 97 men to every 100 women. A quarter of all young women in Switzerland complete a degree course, which is more than in Italy, Germany or Austria. Particularly popular with women is a medical degree, which is especially expensive compared to other courses. 65% of those who successfully complete the course after an average of six years are again women. In terms of doctorates, the female sex catches up fast. Over 40% of Dr. Med. are women. So far so good.

If a woman decides after graduating not to exercise her profession in the long term, the taxpayer has paid for her education without getting anything for it. The state cannot later benefit from the tax revenue generated by well-paid women academics. On average a doctor in Switzerland earned an average of CHF 215,000 a year in 2008, as reported by the Zurich newspaper NZZ.

All these facts and indeed logic would suggest that well-educated women use their acquired knowledge professionally and, like their male colleagues, then also occupy top positions in business, academia or politics. What is more, the Swiss political economy could benefit from the excellent added value that women graduates with a top education and high motivation generate. As statistics show, however, this is too seldom the case. What goes wrong between the hopeful start of many excellently educated women in a successful professional career and a glance into the administrative boardrooms and management meetings where only very few women are still to be found today?

It begins very early, i.e. at home, followed by kindergarten and school. Role models are inculcated and later cemented, often by the media and advertising. In a picture book it will typically be Hans who builds the house that Liselotte cleans and cares for. All very much according to the motto: Why are there more women than men? Because there’s more to clean than think about. There are also plenty of examples in the advertising world. An advertisement for a digital camera boasts the headline: “Definitely not to be handled by women. Except for packing in a gift wrap.” A well-known car rental company advertises with the slogan: “Special service for our women customers. This car stalls on its own at lights.” The message is clear: women are simply thick.

We all know them, these stigmatisations. Some of them might even make us laugh. In a professional context however they are more irritating than funny and unfortunately not the way forward. The literature on the subject also makes it clear that negative stereotypes distort the perception of performance, potential and competence. This is true both at job interviews and for promotions. The idea is that female staff are emotional, relationship-oriented and sensitive, while their male colleagues are described as independent, performance-oriented and dominant. If a woman wears a chic skirt and shows some leg, all sorts of rumours start flying. If she comes to a meeting in a trouser suit with no makeup, it’s whispered that she looks tired and worn out. Even women themselves are not immune to making such comments about their female colleagues. Which again confirms the prejudices of the male staff, who then tattle about the typical bitchiness of women and enjoy the cat fighting in the female sector. Not very clever, is all we can say.

The fact is that women are simply different and have a different way of leading than men. Not better, but different. Susanne Ruoff, the new head of the postal service, has earned herself an excellent reputation because she cultivates a cooperative style of leadership and convinces by argument. She will of course have to prove this in her new position as well. Unfortunately this team-oriented management style is often criticised as a lack of assertiveness. On the other hand – and this can also be read in many studies on the subject – a woman who appears as decisive and power-conscious is quickly branded a virago.

Women have not yet developed their own version of the old boy network. Men have learned over the centuries to form close-knit networks and in spite of all competition to mutually organise this or that job for each other. This solidarity often characterises the search for a suitable successor, who is to be as similar as possible to his predecessor. Perceived consistency creates sympathy, increases the feeling of security and simplifies communication. So the top floor remains in the hands of men – often completely unconsciously.

Lack of models means women themselves often stumble over established role clichés. They indulge each other less and give themselves less credit than the men around them. Competent, very well-trained women often hesitate when they are uncertain of fulfilling a requirement profile by 100%. “Women need to communicate that they want to have a career”, says Sandrine Devillard, senior partner at McKinsey, in an interview with the NZZ on Sunday. “They see themselves too little as leaders, give themselves too little credit and have too limited ambitions. They emphasise everything they can’t do, while men stress their merits above all.”

But if a woman gathers all her courage together and declares openly like most men that she wants to have a career and have children, she still meets with a lot of incomprehension even today. And not only from men. Things are very different in France, where even in the remotest corners of the countryside a school bus comes by every morning to take the children to school. It would not occur to anyone to worry about the wellbeing of the children or to reproach a wife just because her offspring don’t return to the bosom of their mother at midday.

Not only do all the studies show that in countries with a well-developed child care system women rise through the ranks more easily and are better represented at the highest levels. And in these countries, more children are also born than in those where comparatively few women pursue gainful employment. In Norway for example, 61.5% of women have a job and the birth rate is relatively high at 1.9. Having a job in no way leads to not having children. On the contrary, Japan for instance has one of the world’s lowest birth rates, in spite of the majority of women not going out to work. More than half of all Japanese women have no job, but the birth rate is only 1.3.

Women who want to have a profession and a family are in a dilemma where child care is unavailable or consciously traditional role models are cultivated. Either they are stigmatised as bad mothers or they have to swallow the derision of their colleagues if they leave the office in a hurry because their child has just got a bloody nose playing sports.

These and other ideas about why women are unsuited to demanding positions seem to be firmly fixed in the heads of many personnel bosses as well. The “glass ceiling” is the technical name for this phenomenon, which invisibly ensures that women are too seldom put forward for middle and higher management positions.

The pressure for justification that women are subjected to leaves its traces. Thus 40% of all well-educated Swiss women do not have children because a career and a family can only be reconciled with difficulty, or with considerably more effort from mother and father, due to the bad framework conditions. But even those women who consciously forego having children are mostly prevented from reaching the highest rungs of the career ladder. The “glass ceiling” they come up against is much more solid and above all more opaque than it appears.

This makes it unsurprising that Roland Berger, a company specialising in strategy consulting, has found in a study that 80% of the firms questioned by them find it difficult to name reasons for the lack of female representation in management positions.

Apart from antiquated clichés about the role of women in our society, there are very concrete barriers, which could be removed by policy measures, that impede the progress of talented and excellently motivated women. More day schools are needed, more crèche places, in-house crèches, opportunities for attractive part-time work or other creative solutions within companies which would allow mothers also to have an interesting career. In times of unlimited electronic networks, a woman – not to mention a man – does not always have to be in the office. Political will is also required. There need to be tax measures that do not punish those who want to be both a mother and a career woman. And the state needs to work together with companies in for example enabling the international mobility of working couples. All this is easier said than done. Women themselves are often daunted by the debilitating logistical master performance that makes it so difficult for them to find an even work-life balance. It makes them give up too early and be scared off too soon by the expected difficulties. This is fatal, since it is precisely women themselves who should not be climbing down at the first sign of difficulty.

The Swiss system of income-related care costs, designed to relieve families with low and middle incomes, paradoxically leads to it often not making financial sense for both partner to work because of the tax progression and the high costs of child care. In a 2007 study the St. Gallen professor Monika Butler came to the conclusion that in many cases it did not pay for a family with two children – for example in the canton of Zurich – to leave the children with a child minder for three days a week so that the mother could work more and therefore earn more. The expensive crèche and higher taxes mean that the woman’s higher pay is more than eaten up and that there is less left in the kitty at the end of the month than if she were to stay at home. Working more in such a case thus means earning less, not least because in no other OECD country is child care as expensive as it is in Switzerland.

On the subject of earning, equal pay between men and women continues to be a promise gladly striven for but unfulfilled. The Kienbaum/Handelszeitung salary study in 2011 calculated that on the uppermost management floor the pay packet of a male boss had 62% more in it than that of a female boss. The average pay for a man in Switzerland is CHF 335,000 while his female colleague in the same position has to make do with CHF 208,000 on average.

You don’t have to be a women’s rights campaigner to come to the sober realisation that it is economic nonsense to hinder women through outdated role models and incentives misplaced by the state from being able to develop in their careers on the one hand and thus make their contribution to the growth of the Swiss economy on the other. This has now been recognised even by top managers of globally operating companies, such as René Obermann, chairman of Deutsche Telekom, who intends to achieve a 30% quota of women in its leadership by 2015. “More women in leading positions is not the dictate of a poorly understood egalitarianism”, he says. “It is an imperative of social fairness.”

But not only that. Seen purely rationally it is also a decisive factor for the wellbeing and profitability of an enterprise. Numerous studies prove that companies with at least three women on their administrative board earn up to 41% higher equity returns. A study by McKinsey’s corporate consultants with the title “women matter” came to the conclusion that those multinational corporations that had a particularly high proportion of women in top management generated returns around 10% higher than the sector average. A further, still running investigation by Fabian Homberg at Zurich University indicates that having women in the management considerably increases the acquisition success of companies.

“The more homogenous a group is, the higher is the risk of wrong decisions”, confirms the German labour minister Ursula von der Leyen in the German magazine “Der Spiegel”. Or as the head of the International Monetary Fund, the Frenchwoman Christiane Lagarde, encapsulated it when she was asked about the collapse of the American investment bank Lehman Brothers: “If Lehman Brothers had only been Lehman Sisters, the world would be looking better today.”

Today all the experts are unanimous that mixed teams are more successful. This makes women the world’s worst-used resource. “Forget China, India or the Internet”, the respected magazine “The Economist” wrote recently. “Economic growth is being carried by women.” The increase in the female labour force participation rate in the industrialised countries had contributed more to the growth of the gross national product worldwide than new technologies or economic giants such as China and India.

Today 62% of the female population of 15 years upwards is gainfully employed and contributing to keeping the economy going and securing jobs. Women are indispensable not only as workers but as consumers as well. Around 80% of buying decisions are made by them. But women are not just the more frequent customers; they are apparently better at managing money too. Thus Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, who helps small entrepreneurs build up their business with micro credit in the poorest countries in the world, lends money to women above all, in the knowledge that they will treat the precious loan more responsibly.

While women in the developing countries are watching over their scarce resources to secure the survival of their families, the industrial countries, especially in Europe, have a different urgent problem. Our societies are increasingly overageing. We can therefore no longer afford to renounce the most easily accessible resource we have. “Women are worth their weight in gold”, says “Der Spiegel” appositely with regard to the immense potential that slumbers in the treasuries of “human capital”, which is the latest name for the workforce. Particularly Switzerland, which relies on well-trained professionals like other countries do on oil or natural gas, ought to create the right framework conditions.

If we continue to grant ourselves the luxury of making a professional career difficult for women, we might have to pay heavily for it. An international study has calculated that in 30 years Europe will be short of 24 million workers if the potential of women is not tapped. Precisely those forces that make political capital out of the fear of Switzerland being flooded with foreign workers ought to understand that their own wife or daughter could be the solution to the problem. Although it may astonish some people, that is apparently what Christoph Blocher, ex-Federal councillor and National Council member, has recognised. His daughters Miriam Blocher and Magdalena Martullo-Blocher are successful career women. Miriam Blocher is a qualified food engineer and head of the nationally known “Läckerli Huus” in Basel, and Magdalena Martullo-Bocher, lic. Oec. HSG, is a three-time mother, managing director and delegated administrative board member of the globally active EMS Chemie with a staff of around 4500.

Anyone who has already worked in a mixed team will know from their own experience that more women are not just an economic necessity, but also a great enrichment. Women make a crucial contribution to contemporary business management, to what is called “good governance”. Communication is more open and knowledge transfer within a company is improved. Women’s “different viewpoint” of the world enables different problem-solving approaches to be found. No wonder that women are playing an increasingly important role precisely in creative professions, but also in positions that require attention to detail. This is also confirmed by Federal councillor Doris Leuthard in a special edition of the “Schweizer Arbeitgeber” employers’ magazine: “Women are now indispensable in many Swiss companies. Given their skills, their know-how, their experience of life and in the face of demographic developments we cannot afford to leave this women’s potential untapped. We must do everything to ensure that women are even better integrated into the labour market. Promotion of women brings more economic growth.”

“Thinking outside the box” or off the beaten track, is a characteristic in ever more demand in a complex world. Many women have this capacity because they juggle a lot of balls in the air at once in their everyday life and have to fulfil very diverse tasks. It is a pity that too little use is made of this competence. The Smith Institute in Britain has discovered that a good 70% of women in England with scientific, technical and engineering qualifications work in sectors where this special knowledge is not required. The under-representation of women in top management is thus not always the result of a lack of suitable personnel, as is so often and readily deplored. “We’d be happy to have a woman, but unfortunately we couldn’t find anyone with the necessary qualifications”, is what we keep hearing.

The reason lies far more in the fact that traditional criteria are weighted higher in the selection process, so that women are eliminated more quickly. However, there have long been consultancy firms and personnel specialists who focus on the recruitment of female staff. And the “Generation CEO” initiative makes female management talent visible by awarding annual prizes to a number of carefully selected young fast climbers and subsequently incorporating them into its network – a further talent pool.

Many motivated and competent women feel a deep frustration that almost no company will voluntarily campaign for women in leading positions, even if they forego having the children which are often seen as an impediment to a successful career. And then if one of the few top female managers fails, the media uproar is disproportionately louder than if it concerns one of the numerous men who was unable to fulfil the expectations of the staff, shareholders and public. If the number of women in top corporate positions was greater, the media attention would also be less.

Organisations like the “Gender Equality Project”, founded by Nicole Schwab, daughter of WEF founder Klaus Schwab, and Aniela Unguresan, try to provide a remedy here. They have developed a catalogue of self-assessment questions for companies which allows them – to the exclusion of the public – to find out what the situation is with regard to women’s representation in their company and how they could improve the situation. Initial experience gained from collaborations with Coca-Cola, Pfizer and L'Ôreal among others gives grounds for confidence. All three companies expressed themselves very positively about the test phase and will be continuing to work with the Gender Equality Project to gain a better understanding of how women’s careers can be specifically promoted in future.

Many governments have also taken steps. Norway introduced a 40% rule for the proportion of women in supervisory committees in 2006, and this has now been implemented.  Spain, France and the Netherlands are on the way to this, while Denmark and Germany are initially still counting on a voluntary approach. They want to introduce a quota system only if nothing happens without government coercion. State enterprises must adhere to a certain quota in some countries, such as Finland. Private companies are for now still being given the choice of engaging more women or not.

In Switzerland things are being taken with the usual Helvetian congeniality.  An 82% “No” vote in 2000 strongly rejected the Swiss popular initiative of women’s associations for a “fairer representation of women in the federal authorities”. Eleven years later the federal administration was pledging to give preferential treatment to the applications of women.

Exemplary, although not revolutionary approaches with a voluntary commitment to women in private enterprise can be found in the pharma concern Roche. They intend to achieve a 20% quota in management positions by 2015. Coop has already set a quota but does not want to announce it, and Swisscom is in the process of working out a strategy.
A deliberate decision was also taken in this direction by the company Valora. Thomas Vollmoeller, CEO, explains why: “I’m basically of the opinion that well-functioning teams need to complement each other in their composition. The members of such teams enrich each other and develop new, more creative approaches to solutions. Based on international studies and my own experience, I am also convinced that a high proportion of women in management positions brings economic advantages. Beyond this we want to make better use of the so far little-used potential of women in the Swiss labour market by deliberately promoting women’s careers. So the administrative board and corporate management have set themselves the target of filling every fourth management post with a woman by 2015. This is intended to permit the use of a greater potential of current and future staff, but also to be understood in the sense of equal opportunities.”

The introduction of a quota would at the end of the day be a declaration of bankruptcy which would make it clear that all economic, rational, social and demographic arguments are weaker than traditional role models and a stubborn insistence on the status quo. Given so many competent, well and expensively trained women it would be a pity to have to regulate legally something that is obviously right and desirable.

Nayla Hayek, president of Swatch, might criticise the women’s quota as “discriminatory” in the magazine “Der Spiegel”, because the assessment of a manager should concentrate on their performance and not their gender. But even she admits that women constantly have to prove “that they’re not stupid”. “Men’s abilities are no longer questioned above a certain position.”

When Susanne Ruoff was asked on the occasion of her inauguration as head of the Post whether she was in favour of quotas, she answered “No”, yet added immediately: “But women still have a lot of potential in this country.” A lot of unused potential, it has to be said, which is only waiting for the chance to finally reach its full development. For Switzerland, for our economic wellbeing and for our social coexistence it is important and right for everyone finally to pull together; women, businesses and politicians.

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