Opinions - 03.03.2021 - 00:00 

Leaders for Equality: the promotion of women “reloaded”

What can executives do to boost gender equality in Swiss companies? An op-ed by the HSG researchers Prof. Dr. Julia Nentwich and Dr. Gabriele Schambach on the occasion of International Women’s Day.
Source: HSG Newsroom

3 March 2021. It is primarily women who in the so-called “system-relevant” jobs of health, care and the retail trade sustain life in the current pandemic. And it is still women who are not involved in the decision-making processes in politics and business to the same extent as men. And this although according to UN Women, it is becoming clear in many places: where women were at the helm, they navigated better through the crisis.  

Commitment to equality in companies

The arguments are well-known: we need more women in decision-making positions because in this way, much better, more creative and more inclusive solutions can be found. Diverse teams have a working culture that is at once more pleasant and more productive. And more women in executive positions are economically beneficial. Besides these so-called “business case” reasons, it is ultimately only fair if half the world’s population is proportionally represented at the decision-making table. Fairness and “business case” – these are also the main motives of the just under 1,200 Swiss executives interviewed by us to commit themselves to equality in companies.


Why are not remotely the same number of women occupying these decision-making positions as men? Certainly, there is mothers’ responsibility for their children, which is still regarded as a matter of course. In addition, it has never been easy to reconcile executive positions with family life. Added to this, women “like to do something with people” and are therefore underrepresented in the sought-after, well-paid technical and scientific jobs. And ultimately, it does not come as much of a surprise after all that many women don’t want such jobs anyway. That’s the way it is. Your own fault. It’s the gender difference, stupid!

But have you noticed something? Somehow, all this does not quite match up: fairness and equality, on the one hand – and on the other hand, women who are simply different, want something else and are socially involved in completely different functions from men. So women are simply different? Well, what is it now, equal but different though?

Compatibility of family and job – for women and men!

All too often, efforts towards more equality in this dilemma of equality and difference appear to peter out or are even reduced to absurdity. Therefore let’s leave everything as it has never been and turn to the really important things in the crisis, in politics and in our everyday lives. And yet it could be so easy! The men and women in executive positions whom we interviewed can see it very clearly: something must change in the company, in its culture, for men and women to have the same opportunities. This also includes the issue of the compatibility of family life with work, careers and executive positions – for women and men! But please not merely in terms of organisational and technical options. If it’s done, then it must be done properly since this is about changing executives’ thought and work patterns that have become all too cherished. And this is something that requires an act of will to begin with.

It is quite clear that there is a need for action. Our results reveal that women in executive positions in Switzerland feel less well included, i.e. they feel that they are not listened to, appreciated and encouraged in their own companies to the same extent as their male colleagues are. People who feel that they do not belong will also be unable to contribute as much – and subsequently do not even want to do so (any longer). And thus the lack of self-confidence ascribed to women is more likely to be a manifestation of the corporate culture dominated by men.

Executives will have to act

It is a fact that women and men in executive positions are situated in completely different places. Added to this, an overwhelming majority of men have partners who relieve them of the so-called care functions. Conversely, women in executive positions predominantly live in partnerships in which both partners work full time. They also live without a partnership more frequently, and more often do not have any children. Which does not come as much of a surprise in view of the above-mentioned norms in companies, does it? Yet the majority of these women are even better educated than their male colleagues in management. However, they appear to be less able to translate this “capital” into hard currency – or: the corporate and executive cultures prevent this potential of women from being exploited.

It is becoming clear: this is not about women who lack the necessary will but also companies which – to put it mildly – do not quite know yet how they must rethink leadership and cooperation in order to do justice to women’s and men’s different real lives. There is a need for action. For companies. For executives. And the time has come for these obvious differences to be taken into consideration at last. It’s as if the post-pandemic world of work has been created for the purpose – let’s start making it inclusive!

Prof. Dr. Julia Nentwich and Dr. Gabriele Schambach are in charge of the project “Leaders for Equality: executives exploit opportunities”. More detailed information about the results can be found on the project website, where a toolbox with innovative interventions and measures will be available to companies, executives and gender equality officers from summer 2021.

Image: Adobe Stock / Jacob Lund