• Only granting women the vote 50 years ago, Switzerland had a slow start to gender parity.
  • Now its gender gap is closing much faster, led by political representation.
  • The Swiss parliament recently introduced measures for better boardroom participation for women.

In the 2021 edition of the Global Gender Gap Report, Switzerland has climbed back up into the top 10 countries and has achieved the narrowest gender gap score in its history.

This year is particularly special for the country, as it marks the 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage in Switzerland. In 1971, after a failed referendum in 1959, over 50 years after the US and Germany, and over 25 years after France, Italy and Austria, Switzerland’s male electorate granted women the right to vote and stand for election at the federal level.

One of the country’s cantons, Appenzell Innerrhoden, even waited until 1991 to grant its female population the right to vote at the local level. Despite this slow start, gender parity in Switzerland has progressed since. Here are five key developments that have contributed to the country’s improvement in more recent years:

1. Political representation

Political empowerment permitted a big jump to close the gender gap in Switzerland. The most recent federal parliamentary elections, held in October 2019, went down in history as the “women’s” election, with more women than ever elected to the two houses of parliament. With 42% female representation in the National Council (“lower house”), Switzerland now ranks ahead of Denmark, the UK, and France, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Moreover, growing climate change activism also led to more women being elected, with the Green Party’s slate of female candidates clear beneficiaries. At the federal level, the share of women in ministerial positions remains constant with three out of seven federal councillors. However, a woman has been the head of state for eight of the past 50 years, and the presidency of the Swiss Confederation has been held by a woman in six of the past 10 years. Nevertheless, the country’s federal system means many decisions are taken at a local level; at cantonal level the improvement in representation is moderate, while at city level no clear trends appear.

2. Boardrooms

In June 2019, the Swiss parliament approved a government proposal calling for better representation of women at the top level of large publicly traded companies, affecting around 250 companies. The Council of States (upper house) voted in favour of the proposal, which was also narrowly approved by the National Council (lower house), by just one vote.

The new regulation, which is part of a revamp of Swiss corporate law and came into force in January this year, sets as a guideline that companies allocate to women at least 30% of positions on the boards of directors and 20% in executive boards over the next five and 10 years respectively. Failure to achieve the minimum targets, resulting in non-compliance with those proportions, will require justification in the remuneration report, and measures to reach those quotas need to be put forward. A step in the right direction.

Image: Global Gender Gap Report 2021

3. Education

Following a global trend, an impressive development has taken place in Switzerland when it comes to gender equality in education, with more young women now completing higher vocational training or education than men. The reasons for this are complex, with possible explanations ranging from women applying themselves more in pre-university grades to men’s eagerness to start earning money from a younger age.

According to the Swiss Federal Statistical Office, while 17% of women between the ages of 25 and 34 had completed higher vocational training or higher education in 2000, this figure had risen to 54% by 2018. The proportion of young men who completed higher education increased less sharply, from 34% to 49% between 2000 and 2018. Furthermore, in Swiss high school, the share of women stands at 57%. These significant changes should also start to show concrete effects as female graduates enter professional life. Today, however, 75% of female graduates still feel that equality in the workplace is poorly or very poorly realized.

4. Paternity leave

Men also have a key role to play in reaching gender equality. On 27 September 2020, Swiss voters – with a clear majority of 60.3% – accepted a law that ensures compensated paternity leave. Fathers are now able to take two weeks of paid leave within six months of the birth of their child. While this may be considered a modest step toward more equality, new ideas to further build on this law are already being discussed. Proposals such as the one recently made by the Green Party, calling for 18 weeks of parental leave for each parent, could help to generate compromises and further expand the length of the new paternal leave.

5. Women’s strikes

On 14 June 1991, on the 20th anniversary of women getting the vote at the federal level, half a million women in Switzerland joined the first women’s strike. History now shows the impact of that day on progress regarding equality of the sexes and the struggle against discrimination in Switzerland. For example, one of the demands was to bring in further legislation to ensure the equality of sexes. In 2002, Swiss voters approved laws legalizing abortion, and in 2004, the article in the constitution on maternity leave, which had been in the constitution since 1945, was finally implemented in a piece of enabling legislation.

Last year, nearly 30 years later, saw even more women (and men) take the streets again, demanding “higher pay, greater equality and more respect”. On that day, there were a total of seven parliamentary responses from both left and right-wing politicians, on subjects varying from sexual violence to a women’s museum. In the last year and a half, we already saw the strike leading to more women being elected in the 2019 Swiss federal elections, and the new law on caring for relatives come into force in January: This is intended to improve the compatibility of work and family by allowing parents of seriously ill children to take short absences without affecting their salaries. Other current examples include reducing the “tampon tax”. This strike was a new beginning of long-term efforts to change laws, habits, and mindsets.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

The World Economic Forum has been measuring gender gaps since 2006 in the annual Global Gender Gap Report.

The Global Gender Gap Report tracks progress towards closing gender gaps on a national level. To turn these insights into concrete action and national progress, we have developed the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerators model for public private collaboration.

These accelerators have been convened in ten countries across three regions. Accelerators are established in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, and Panama in partnership with the InterAmerican Development Bank in Latin America and the Caribbean, Egypt and Jordan in the Middle East and North Africa, and Kazakhstan in Central Asia.

All Country Accelerators, along with Knowledge Partner countries demonstrating global leadership in closing gender gaps, are part of a wider ecosystem, the Global Learning Network, that facilitates exchange of insights and experiences through the Forum’s platform.

In 2019 Egypt became the first country in the Middle East and Africa to launch a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator. While more women than men are now enrolled in university, women represent only a little over a third of professional and technical workers in Egypt. Women who are in the workforce are also less likely to be paid the same as their male colleagues for equivalent work or to reach senior management roles.

In these countries CEOs and ministers are working together in a three-year time frame on policies that help to further close the economic gender gaps in their countries. This includes extended parental leave, subsidized childcare and removing unconscious bias in recruitment, retention and promotion practices.

If you are a business in one of the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator countries you can join the local membership base.

If you are a business or government in a country where we currently do not have a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator you can reach out to us to explore opportunities for setting one up.

Switzerland is one of the oldest democracies in the world. Some believed that women’s suffrage would derail it and yet such a turn made it stronger. Its dramatic progress towards gender equality since the late adoption of women’s suffrage 50 years ago is obvious. Improvements in equal access to education and in the political empowerment of women, though partial at times, have been important drivers to increase gender equality in the country.

Nevertheless, as underlined in the aforementioned Global Gender Gap Report 2021, progress must still be made in relation to women’s economic participation and opportunity gaps. Removing persistent barriers such as the pay gap, joint taxation of married couples, outdated provisions in the pension system, and limited access to affordable childcare would without doubt support Switzerland’s ongoing course toward equality. Change begins in the mind, but then needs structures to solidify it.