Gender representation in the Boardroom

Institutional Communication Service

Despite Switzerland's professed commitment to gender issues, even today, the proportion of women in top management in the private sector and the Boardroom struggle to meet minimum equality targets. We take a closer look at this issue with Patricia Funk, Professor at USI Faculty of Economics, and Laetitia Gill, Executive Director of the Centre for Philanthropy (GCP) at the University of Geneva.


Professor Funk, why is it that the situation in Switzerland does not seem to be evolving?

The situation is evolving - although perhaps not as quickly as we would like. According to Deloitte's "Women in the Boardroom" report (which analyses a sample of 147 Swiss companies), the share of women directors was 10% in 2014 and has risen to 18% in 2018 (currently exceeding 20%). I see two possible explanations behind this slow increase. One reason may be cultural, with a relatively high share of women working part-time, a choice (or need) that hinders the achievement of top positions in companies. However, in recent years, the percentage of men working part-time has risen more than the percentage of women. This may enable more women to pursue high-level career paths. Second, I would expect the share of women to increase among newly appointed directors. As such, the influx of new women into top positions (in terms of % of total directors) may be greater than the stock of female directors. Data from the Schilling Report support this hypothesis: in 2020, 23% of directors at Switzerland's 100 largest companies were women. However, among newly appointed directors, the share of women was about 1/3. These trends (more men working part-time and helping women further their careers and an increase in newly elected female directors) give a sign of optimism, including a possible achievement of the gender goals set by Switzerland. 


Taking politics as an example, the introduction of the so-called "pink quotas" in Italy has changed voters' behaviour. In your opinion, is this instrument sufficient for a correct and better political representation?

We know that Italy has introduced gender quotas in party lists in municipal elections, which has led to better female representation. When we talk about quotas, we usually wonder whether the increase in female representation comes at a cost. We question if it might lead to a lower quality of candidates or if there might be a shortage of women available to run for office. However, in Italy, the opposite seems to have happened: the increase in female representation has gone hand in hand with an increase in the quality of candidates (as measured by their education). Experiences with a zipper system in Sweden (alternating male and female candidates on the party list) point in the same direction.


Professor Gill, as demonstrated in one of your recent studies, the greater the gender diversity in the Board of Directors (BoD), the better the funding outcome of the most diverse projects. How do you explain this phenomenon?

The concept of diversity includes any significant difference that distinguishes one individual from another, such as age, gender, sexual orientation, disability and illness, life experience, religious beliefs, and social context. Thus, gender is only one dimension of diversity. Seeing diversity as an essential lever for an innovative and successful philanthropic sector in Switzerland and noting that little data was available, the Geneva Center for Philanthropy (GCP) chose to explore this topic as a priority.

With Dr Aline Kratz-Ulmer, a GCP academic, I began conducting an empirical survey in 2020 among board members of philanthropic foundations in Switzerland. We were surprised by the positive response. The results of our anonymous online survey show that 36.7% of board members are women. This is well above the rate in the relevant field, as studies show that about 25% of women currently sit on corporate boards.

Among interviewees representing 720 members, there was unanimous agreement that, first, diversity is a benefit to their BoD (89.7%) and, second, a diverse BoD leads to more efficiency (86%).

Diversity is a means, not an end. People should be recruited first and foremost for their skills and complementarity. Furthermore, without an inclusion policy, diversity for diversity's sake may be doomed to failure.

Well-managed diversity is a source of wealth for a group; it fosters collective brainpower that can lead to better returns and greater creativity.


What is the academic gender situation on boards in Switzerland?

It should be mentioned that not all universities in Switzerland have Boards. However, regardless of the structure chosen, decision-making bodies count an increasing number of women at the academic level with an average of 30-40%. It is an encouraging development.

In addition, several initiatives have been implemented, including the Charter for Diversity in the Workplace (2018), by which, for example, the University of Geneva commits to valuing "diversity of thought, style and experience, and promotes a culture based on respect and equal opportunity."