Simona Scarpaleggia has raised 3 kids and is CEO of IKEA Switzerland since 2010. She also invests a lot of energy in empowering women, for example with the non-profit association Advance – Women in Swiss Business.
Simona Scarpaleggia, how often have you had to answer the question of how to reconcile career and family?
Does it annoy you that women are asked that?
It does annoy me, but I would be less annoyed if men got asked the same question.
What do you answer to this question?
Good organization and determination were key. And professional support helped me to pursue both.
Family is top priority
You have three children. What was the biggest challenge for you and your husband in reconciling professional ambitions and family life?
The biggest challenge was to always accommodate everybody’s needs, and to keep make sure that the interests of the family were the top priority. To give you an example: When I moved to Switzerland, it was important that my husband could still pursue his career in Italy. With us living in Zurich, he could commute to Milano during the week.
Can you understand that family planning plays a role in many of women’s career planning considerations?
I can understand it.
Did you have to free yourself from certain thought patterns or fight against internal or external resistance in pursuing your professional ambitions?
Personally, I always had it clear that I wanted to pursue both things – a family and a career. Once I got in a leadership position, I changed corporate habits that were hindering me to pursue both things equally. For example, I would not allow meeting in the evenings, because for a working mom they are almost impossible to attend, whereas men just stay longer – because it’s taken for granted that the women accommodates the children at home.
Nights with little sleep and a “mombrain” in the first few months of your baby’s life – the feeling that because of all this you cannot perform the same performance as you did before in your professional life. Did you feel the same way?
To be honest with you, I didn’t have that problem. I was well organized and committed to making things work and run smoothly. On top of that, I had support from my family and professionally (nanny), which helped me to get my priorities straight.
“Always on and running around”
Your children have grown up. In which age periods did you find the compatibility particularly demanding? The times of lack of sleep and many sick days in infancy? Or the teenage years?
The different life stages are hard to compare and demand different things from parents. Small children need a lot of physical attention and proximity, whereas teenagers need to know that you are there emotionally to support them when necessary.
I did not really feel a lack of sleep, but I remember there was hardly any time that I could keep for myself only. Especially when the children are small, you’re always on and running around.
Were there times when you wanted or had to take it a little easier at work for family reasons?
I took my five months of maternity leave after every child’s birth, which mothers in Italy are granted. During this period, I focused as much attention as I could towards my family, and made sure to work as little as possible.
Equality in Switzerland
What ideas did you have of the Swiss situation with regard to equality before you came here?
I expected a very conservative environment. I knew that Switzerland only accepted the women’s right to vote in 1971, which I thought was somewhat concerning.
Were you positively or negatively surprised when you actually saw the Swiss working world up close?
I saw that in Switzerland, many mothers are not working at all or work part-time. Since they make up a high proportion of university graduates, this means a lot of potential is not being used. What surprised me positively is that the interest and awareness about the benefits of gender equality has risen considerably since I arrived in Switzerland nine years ago. I think this can be attributed to the pragmatism of the Swiss: as soon as they see the (economical) benefit in something, they act upon it.
You are a strong advocate of equal opportunities and equal pay. How do you assess the current situation in Switzerland, also in comparison to Italy?
The indicators are clearly pointing in the right direction for Switzerland. According to the Gender Gap Report from the WEF, Switzerland now ranks 20th among 149 countries that were included. Italy ranks 70th. Both have a lot to do, but Italy has to do much more to close the gap further.
Penalty for working moms
What do you think are the biggest obstacles to full equality?
In society, unconscious biases and culture. To make an example: At a ceremony, I was once handed a tie as a gift, indicating that women were considered to receive this token.
In Switzerland, the biggest obstacles are the school system with the lunch break paired with a lack of daycare structures, and that the Swiss tax code punishes married couples that both work. And as normally the lowest salary is penalized by this mechanism and the majority of lower salary are hold by women, this mainly penalizes working, married women.
At IKEA Switzerland, the gender ratio is balanced up to the highest level. What was more demanding: the persuasion to put this into practice or the encouragement of women to apply for high positions at all?
I did not need to make a big effort to persuade women to apply for leadership positions. People knew that we have championed and lived equal opportunities in our company for a long time, so women did not hesitate to apply.
To put it into practice was not so difficult either, because there is a strong believe in our company that we achieve better results with mixed and diverse teams. So we made certain adaptions and could see the fruits of these changes after a while.
What advice do you give to companies that also want to achieve a balanced gender ratio?
To set up clear policies and put them into practice. For example, we started to always have a male and a female candidate to choose from when filling a new position. In the long run, this made sure to have gender balance on all levels. We also championed flexible working models with working part-time, six weeks paternity leave etc.
In general, it is important to run the numbers, take into consideration the short – and long term effect on cost and employee satisfaction, and then implement the policies. For me, it’s a no-brainer – both from a humanistic and a business perspective.
“Regard yourself as having equal rights”
And what advice do you have for mothers who have professional ambitions?
Get over stereotyped thinking and truly regard yourself as having equal rights, both at home and at work. Not only men, but also women have been brought up with biases regarding gender roles.
Let’s go back to the first question: not only does it imply that a mother shouldn’t be working, but it also assumes that it is the woman’s job to look after the family. Worst of all: women are often asked this question by other women, and then immediately defend themselves, asserting how much they care about their family etc. And not surprisingly, this is reflected in the fact that most working women with a family unwittingly live with a deep-rooted sense of guilt. We have to get over these stereotypes and make people who ask that question aware that it is rooted in stereotyped thinking, and contradicts the basis of equality between men and women.
Moreover, we need to respect all choices of those man and women who decide to pursue a carrier and of those man and women who decided to stay at home and look after the family. We need to care much more about the fact that this has to be a free and conscious choice.
You enjoy reading passionately. Is there a book on the subject of equality, compatibility, etc. that you find particularly recommendable?
I’m a currently reading “Women & Power” by Mary Beard. What I particularly like about it is that it goes to the root of power thinking and changes power “taboos”.
Your book “Die andere Hälfte” will be published in July. What is the core message?
That a gender balanced workplace is good for women, men, the company and the overall economy, so there is no reason not to start acting decisively now. It is a great opportunity we cannot miss, and it’s about time to get started.