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Women in law: Switzerland

Switzerland has consistently been praised for its economic stability, neutrality and robust financial sector. Yet its efforts towards achieving gender parity have historically lagged behind its European neighbours. GC speaks to leading corporate counsel across the country to shine a light on the barriers preventing women from rising to the upper echelons of the legal profession.

Breaching the gender divide

Thousands of women took to the streets on 14 June 2019, to protest against Switzerland’s slow progress towards gender equality. The ‘Frauenstreik’, as the protest was called, saw women from major cities including Bern, Geneva and Zurich unite in an effort to campaign against unequal pay and general cultural sexism. The strike comes twenty eight years after the country’s first nationwide walkout, when over half a million women across Switzerland rallied in protest for equal rights.

Despite being one of the richest countries in the world, frustrations around equal pay, accessible childcare facilities and the under-representation of women in management positions, have continued to come to the fore.

The legal profession, like many industries, has been historically male-led. However, with more women attending law school than ever before, GC magazine investigates the reasons precluding women in Switzerland from achieving true gender equality. We sought out the perspectives of prominent in-house counsel who share their thoughts on the legal and cultural barriers preventing gender diversity – not only within the legal profession, but throughout broader society.

A slow start

Switzerland’s economic and political stability has made it one of the most progressive and developed countries in the world. Yet, surprisingly, Switzerland has been slow to address barriers inhibiting gender equality.

For example, women across Switzerland were granted the right to vote and run for office in federal elections in 1971, lagging far behind many European countries, and it wasn’t until a decade later that the Constitution was officially amended to recognise equal rights for men and women. Up until 1985, women required permission from their husbands to work or open up a bank account. In addition, the legislative provisions granting maternity leave were introduced as late as 2005.

As we travel further up the corporate ladder, the representation of women within executive positions significantly decreases.

‘Just over 36% of all management jobs are held by women in Switzerland. This is particularly striking since, internationally, the number of female law students outnumbers males by a significant amount,’ says Raphaël Sergi, group finance counsel at MSC Mediterranean Shipping Company.

Also observing this trend is Christian Müller, general counsel of Mövenpick Holding AG:

‘From a purely economic point of view, the State must be very interested to make women’s careers possible and not lose so many talented and well-trained people on the way up after investing in their education.’

Despite Switzerland’s deep-rooted conservative heritage, Müller believes it is important to strive towards gender equality by acknowledging administrative and cultural shortfalls.

‘It is a really good question to ask, why do we lose so many women on the way up? There are different answers to that one – but I believe one of the main answers is the systems in place in Switzerland,’ says Müller.

Unfortunately, it is unsurprising then that a profession in the spotlight around the world for a lack of diversity in the upper ranks should face similar problems in Switzerland.

‘We lose talent because most companies here still do not offer women the possibility to stay at home or to drop down to part time after giving birth. Politically and legally the State should implement better support systems.

‘But things like that need time in Switzerland because our system, in general although it works very well, is slow-moving and changes take quite some time to become effective,’ says Müller.

A balancing act

The legal framework supporting working mothers within Switzerland has not only been slow to develop but, in some instances, remains non-existent. Herminie Simonetta, senior vice president and general counsel of professional beauty and Europe for luxury goods and beauty products powerhouse Coty, also happens to be a mother of two. She believes that the infrastructure in place to support working mothers is simply not there in Switzerland.

‘The structures are not here to enable women to work. When I had kids, it was very difficult to find appropriate daycare. There was just no room in the few choices that were available, and I was forced to hire a nanny. But not everybody has the means to do that,’ she says.


The lack of affordable childcare has forced women to re-evaluate their professional careers.


‘Being a working mother in Switzerland, you are already in the minority. I am originally from Paris and I am always amazed by the amount of people here in Switzerland who ask, “Don’t you feel guilty working?” Part of my success is being very organised. I recognise that Switzerland is not a country where women are pushed to work, although I can see there are some changes happening.’

These sentiments are echoed by Marcella Bruelhart, legal director at Japan Tobacco International, speaking to her personal opinion:

‘Switzerland is a country where women were given the right to vote rather late in comparison to other European countries. Yet Switzerland is a country with a certain amount of wealth. Therefore, in comparison to other European countries, such fact in principle allows one person in the family that is working,’ she says.

‘In many cases it is probably less expensive to stay at home and take care of the kids. Childcare can be incredibly expensive and, in some smaller villages, childcare facilities are not even available. So, there is still need to improve the childcare infrastructure on a public and private level.’

The lack of affordable childcare infrastructure has also forced women to re-evaluate their professional careers. Although there are no legislative provisions driving part-time employment, a number of companies have provided the 80% work week as an option for working mothers. This means that employees can drop the number of hours they work a week by 20%, in most cases turning a five-day working week into a four-day working week.

One person proving that you can both successfully lead a team while working part time is Renate Wey, general counsel wealth management at Mirabaud Group.

‘You have to show whilst on the job that you have the competencies. I think that having kids should not be an argument for not advancing your career,’ she says.

‘If you prove you can do the job well, I think most companies would prefer to keep you, even though you are only working on an 80% basis. But perhaps I am lucky, because the companies I worked and do work for have always been in favour of the 80% work week. So for me, it is feasible, even though it can get difficult at times.’

Choosing to remain anonymous, an in-house counsel currently working part time in the banking sector says that Switzerland’s conservative traditions means the onus of reducing workloads usually falls on mothers.

‘Switzerland is really conservative. Most couples, when they have their first child, assume that the mother will reduce her working hours.’

‘Somehow it is not socially acceptable for men to reduce their working hours. This is perhaps going to change – especially within bigger firms. Nevertheless, it would not be looked at in a very positive way. Men would have the sigma of “father”.’

The onus of taking care of newborns traditionally falls on women, acknowledges Miral Hamani, director of M&A, corporate transactions and international governance at Hewlett Packard Enterprise. Hamani says it is common for employers to consider whether a new mother will be willing, or able to return to work:

‘Working mothers need to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Depending on your needs, there should not be any prejudgment on your capacity to get your work done. As long as you work hard – there should be no questions around the fact that you are a woman, and certainly not around the fact that you are having children.’

Equal pay for equal work

Of the many concerns surrounding gender diversity in the legal profession is the gender pay gap, which ranks particularly highly in Switzerland. According to the Federal Statistical Office of Switzerland, women were paid 18% less than their male colleagues in 2016. This figure rises to almost 20% for women working in the private sector.

These figures are reflective of a much wider global trend, says Sergi: ‘Globally, it is being reported that women are generally being paid less than men, even when male and female lawyers have similar qualifications and experiences.’

Hamani admits that women during the course of their careers do not know if they are being paid less.

‘The truth is a women would not know, or necessarily realise – and that is the trick – if they are being paid less than a man. That is why it is important to work on statistics and get facts.’

To combat the pay gap, Simonetta suggests that Switzerland looks towards the UK, where equitability of salaries is important. In the UK, the Equality Act was introduced in 2010 in an effort to develop a legal framework aimed at closing the gender pay gap. The legislation gives employees a legal right to equal pay for equal work irrespective of gender.

Supporting him supports her

Overcoming gender representation barriers within the legal profession begins with regulatory reform. For instance, Nordic countries have addressed the parenting divide by introducing legislation aimed at sharing parenting responsibilities. Norway, for instance, increased the amount of fathers-only parental leave from ten to 15 weeks in July 2018.

The implementation of these polices is also aimed at changing cultural norms in countries where women are typically considered the primary carers. Following these principles, Switzerland has made some progress towards improving paternity leave regulations.

‘Where we still have some homework to do as a society in Switzerland is in regards to childcare – it’s an area where I believe we are far behind when compared to other countries in the region,’ explains Daniel Schoenberger, head of legal in Switzerland and Austria at Google.

‘It is expensive and not subsidised. By law, maternity leave in Switzerland is only 14 weeks, and for fathers it is only one day.’

However, on 27 September 2019, the Swiss parliament passed a new law which will increase the amount of paid paternity leave from one day to two weeks. These changes, which are set to come into effect in 2020, signal a small cultural shift within Swiss society, though skepticism remains and there is an awareness that there remains a long way to go.

‘I think this change has been good and will bring a certain amount of relief. Though I don’t honestly know how much relief,’ says Bruelhart.


Women during the course of their careers do not know if they are being paid less.


‘This being said, while the compensation levels vary, the length of paternity already exceeds two weeks in numerous countries such as Austria (four), Bulgaria (three), Spain (five) and Finland (nine). Switzerland is following a trend rather than innovating in this area. More generally, this by itself will not change the picture on female diversity – there’s still more to do,’ adds Sergi.

Greener pastures

Although changes to paternity legislation are unlikely to directly shift female diversity numbers, plans to introduce gender quotas on boards of large companies have proven to be effective in other Nordic countries.

‘Lately, there has been some consideration on a political level around company law in Switzerland and the introduction of placing quotas to increase the number of women who sit on boards,’ says Bruelhart.

‘These legislative revisions are not happening tomorrow, rather, they are part of a wider company law reform package currently being discussed in Switzerland. I think this will be a very good initiative, as new laws will raise awareness and trigger structural changes that will allow women to be more present in business life. However, enabling more women to take up leadership positions at the board level and within the management ranks will take time.’

Yet discussions around the introduction of quotas have been indecisive.

‘Usually women who get to a certain level within their career do not want you to actually acknowledge that they arrived there because they are a woman. They want to be acknowledged for working hard and for being deserving of the position they have obtained,’ says Hamani.

Müller echoes this perspective, believing that women want to be recognised for their talents rather than their gender.

‘In my opinion, it is super important to have gender representation. But, at the end of the day, I believe that quotas don’t really help women. This is because women don’t want to be there because they are a woman. Women want to be there because they bring skills and value.’

Initially resistant to the idea of gender quotas, Coty’s Simonetta admits that the evidence supporting meaningful change brought on by gender quotas cannot be ignored.

‘I have mixed feelings about quotas – like everyone – because women who get promoted and get a seat on the board do not want to be there because they filled a quota,’ she says.

‘However, it has been proven that it is one of the best ways to make change. Nordic countries are a great example of this system working. I was against quotas for a long time. But there is evidence that the system is working, therefore it makes sense to consider implementing quotas.’

Glass ceilings are made to break

Switzerland remains one of the wealthiest countries in the world, however its conservative roots have made it slow to rectify gender-based disparities. If recent protests are any indication, more needs to be done to promote gender diversity across not only the legal profession, but across the board.

The lack of affordable childcare facilities supporting working women, coupled with the negative financial incentive for mothers to return to their careers after having kids, has limited choices for women in Switzerland. Yet, despite these barriers, women across business and the legal profession have managed to persevere.

‘When given the opportunity, I think it is important not to prejudge women – I usually ironically say that there is only one kind of man, but there are multiple kinds of women,’ Hamani says.

‘You have women who want to leave their careers because they want to take care of their kids. You have women who have kids and still want to evolve their careers. You have women who don’t want kids and they want to choose whatever suits them. There is no judgement to make, each of these women are right – so long as they have a choice.’

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