Autumn is my favorite season, as it marks the beginning of a new school year. I have the good fortune of teaching hundreds of Bachelor’s and Master’s Level students in Switzerland, slightly over half of whom are female.
Excited about the future
My female students tend to be bright, thoughtful, hard-working and idealistic. In class debates and oral arguments – even within the adversarial context of the Anglo-American legal tradition – my female students hold their own with their male peers and often outshine them. The handful of perfect sixes earned by top students each semester tend to go 50-50 to men and women. I enjoy talking to students about their career plans, because my students are often idealistic and excited about the future.
But each fall as our new classes start, I find myself troubled by the same question:
Should I let my female students know?
Should I tell my female students that although there are one thousand and one reasons we are lucky to live in Switzerland – a beautiful, prosperous, peaceful and democratic country – there is one way in which we are unlucky?
Should I tell them that although they might be fortunate enough to sail through young adulthood cheerfully oblivious to gender discrimination in the workplace (as I did before I moved to Switzerland), when they reach their late 20s and early or mid 30s, prime child-bearing age, they will likely face a rude awakening?
Should I let them know that they and their male peers will be on the same trajectory, celebrate the same accomplishments, and enjoy somewhat equal status until… – until, all of a sudden, their male colleagues’ careers leap forward and theirs stall?
Ten Tricks to deal with gender discrimination at work
Switzerland is a negative outlier in terms of gender equality. Gender discrimination – both intentional and unconscious – is a serious problem in many Swiss workplaces. Like many, I believe we have an obligation to fight this at two levels: At the level of public policy (through advocacy campaigns, NGO work, political organizing, voting, direct services to victims of gender-based discrimination and violence, and demonstrations, like the historic June 2019 Women’s Strike) and on the individual level. This essay is only about the latter.
Here are some tricks Swiss colleagues and I have come up with to deal with gender discrimination in our professions. They might not work for everyone, in every circumstance, but they are a starting point for discussion. (If you have tips that have worked for you, please share them in the comments).
So here it goes, dear Young Swiss Women:
#1 Remember: It’s not about you
I often find it hard to stick up for myself personally when issues of gender discrimination arise. It is hard enough to be a foreigner in Switzerland; I do not wish to rock the boat or – God forbid – appear ungrateful.
But when I see someone else mistreated, my fear disappears. I imagine I am not the only woman who feels this way, as we are often taught from a young age to value the well-being and comfort of those around us before that of ourselves. So when fighting against gender discrimination in the workplace, it often helps me to remember that it is not about me. It is not even (just) about equity or fairness. It is about the performance and productivity of the organization.
Gender discrimination is unproductive and inefficient because it is irrational.
Gender discrimination is wasteful
So-called “taste-based discrimination” is costly. It leads to poorer organizational performance for several reasons. First, the competition for top positions is artificially constrained: men (in practice) often need to compete with only half of the population. It would be as if a company said, “We need a new CEO, but we will only take seriously the applications of people who are left-handed, have brown eyes, and whose first names start with A-F.”
Is the company likely to find an acceptable candidate? Yes. Is the company likely to find the best person for the job? No.
Gender discrimination is also wasteful because once men find themselves in powerful positions, they do not feel the same pressure they otherwise would to excel. Of course, many men do excel, driven by their own personal integrity and the desire to do well for the organization for whom they work. But I have seen many men perform at levels that I cannot imagine would be deemed acceptable, were it not for the fact that they were artificially insulated from competition by women.
Finally, gender discrimination is wasteful because it can lead some women to “take their foot off the gas” – that is, to adapt to the reality of their job prospects by choosing to disinvest in their careers. It is absolutely fine if a woman chooses to devote more energy to her family, friends, or hobbies than to her career. But if a woman does that because energy and effort put into her career will not be adequately rewarded, then that leads to waste.
Historically, one reason Switzerland has been able to tolerate so much gender discrimination is that it has done so well economically.
Switzerland can afford to be inefficient
In other words, it can “afford” to be inefficient. I have often heard that many Swiss women enjoy the “luxury” of staying home to care for their families. But one wonders how long that will hold. Given COVID-19 and a host of other challenges our society faces, can we really “afford” to be sloppy about equality? What sports team deliberately decides to keep many of its strongest players on the bench? And what about all of the women who are raising children alone or who cannot afford to be underemployed?
So, when you experience gender discrimination in the workplace, remember: it is not about you. You are not speaking up for yourself so much as speaking up for the well-being of the organization and the larger society as a whole.
#2 Do not be intimidated
When I was a law student, a young mother joined the faculty of my law school. She had two young children and had recently come out of a leadership position at a major children’s law nonprofit after clerking for the United States Supreme Court – the highest honor for a recent law graduate. She was brilliant and kind, and I thought she was the most amazing woman. One day she made an off-the-cuff remark that has stuck with me all of these years: “One day, you will finally get a seat at the table, and you will realize that everyone else is faking it too.”
At the time, this seemed shocking, almost blasphemous. She was not faking it! She was my professor!
But now that I am older, I completely understand what she meant. How many times have you sat in a meeting and suddenly realized that the men around you – all distinguished in their own way – actually have no idea what to do? They seem impressive – and in many ways they are – but they are not gods. They confront ambiguity and self-doubt; they experience the same cognitive biases, limitations in judgment, skill, and preparation that we all do.
Fake it till you make it
This realization is important for women because women are often acutely aware of their own shortcomings and fall into the trap of “comparing our insides with the outsides of others”. In addition, men are often socialized to appear decisive and self-confident even when perhaps a little more humility or uncertainty would be in order.
This realization can help women learn to “take up more space” – that is, to put ourselves forward, to share openly and freely our skills and talents, to ask directly for the resources we need to be successful, and not to hang back until we have figured out the “perfect” solution – even in difficult situations when we are not entirely sure what to do. It will also help us reach for goals that seem slightly out of reach, on the theory that – like the men around us – we can “fake it till we make it.” It is often said that women are hired based on their accomplishments, while men are hired based on their potential. What if – as women – we began to think of ourselves in terms of our potential?
#3 Make the pie bigger
Reflecting on times I have experienced gender discrimination in Switzerland, I realize that the man at issue almost always felt threatened in some way and was, as a result, behaving defensively and emotionally, rather than rationally. (Few people actually think that gender discrimination is productive when they are using the rational part of their brains; the discrimination is more likely to kick in at a subconscious level, often as a response to stress or fear.)
Of course, in an ideal world, women should not have to add to our endless “to do” lists a reminder to “reassure the men around us that our competence is not a threat“. Indeed, focusing too much on reassuring men can backfire.
More gender equality: everybody wins
But in keeping with the “gender discrimination is inefficient” hypothesis, I do think it is helpful for women to show that when there is more equality, everyone wins. Sure, at certain times, work actually does involve a “zero-sum” game (there is one space for a promotion: if I get it, he does not), but in most cases, at least in the middle and long term, working well together brings synergies and gains in productivity that outweigh the “threat” from a strong colleague.
#4 “Don’t leave before you leave.”
Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, made this adage famous in her book Lean In. Regardless of what one thinks of Facebook, Lean In, or Sheryl Sandberg herself, this advice is excellent, and was often specifically mentioned by Swiss women I know, who understand Swiss culture far better than I do.
The idea is that one should not slow down or back off from one’s career prematurely, in anticipation of some future time when one becomes a mother. (A female student in her early 20s once told me that she was not sure about whether to continue on to law school, as she wanted to have a family one day.) It’s understandable that people in Switzerland like to plan ahead.
But if anything, the prospect of future children should make one more ambitious at work, not less so.
So that when it is time to take maternity leave, one’s bargaining position and financial position is stronger.
#5 Never pass up a chance to help another woman
Early in my career, I worked as a lawyer at a large corporate law firm. Some of the female partners were mildly supportive. Others operated under the classic “scarcity” mentality: “You have no idea what I had to endure to make it. I was hazed, and now it is my turn to haze you.” I don’t think that there is anything one can do about women like that, except to say: “I am sorry that they feel like they have to act that way. Something really traumatic must have happened to them.”
Help them climb over the wall
We can only affect our own behavior. And so, when faced with gender discrimination, I made a promise to myself that I would never pass up the chance to help another woman. Do I always follow through? No, of course not. Resources are limited; one is always trying to achieve a number of goals at the same time. And sometimes the values and goals of other women are in conflict with mine. But nonetheless, the basic approach helps. Having (finally) clawed my way “over the wall” in a new country, I promise to try to use my hard-won status to help propel others over the wall, and I expect them to do the same.
#6 Keep a list of people whose feedback you value, and ignore everyone else
When I first moved to Switzerland, I asked a lot of Swiss people for advice about how to fit in and integrate. As a foreign mother, I also received a lot of unsolicited advice – not all of it kind. At first, I believed and sought to follow everything people told me, on the theory that I knew nothing about Switzerland, and if a Swiss person was giving me this advice about how to live here, then they must be right.
It took me about two years to realize the obvious. A lot of the advice I received was contradictory. When people said, “This is how we do it here in Switzerland,” what they really meant was “This is how the people I know do it in Switzerland and this is what I think you should do based on my personal values and experience.” Much of the advice received was insightful and helpful. A good bit of it was rubbish.
Women are in the position of receiving a lot of unsolicited feedback, from indirect slights at work to catcalls on the street.
If you want to be a strong and successful woman, you cannot please everyone, no matter how hard you try.
There will always be someone – sometimes another woman – who does not want to see you succeed. Luckily, the helpful, supportive and encouraging people far outnumber the naysayers – just often the naysayers are a bit louder.
One solution, borrowed from Brene Brown, is to make a list in advance of people whose advice and judgment you really trust. Carry it around with you. (My list is in my wallet.) Then, when you have to make a difficult decision that might not be popular, consult the list and imagine what the people on the list would tell you to do, or how they would respond. The people on the list do not have to be more senior: my list includes the names of children and young adults whose judgment and character I admire.
By implication, feel free to ignore the advice received from people who are not on the list. That is harsh, but it is necessary, and it is the key to the success (I would argue) of many male leaders. Why? Because we cannot afford to give precious space in our heads to naysayers, whose “advice” is often driven more by bias, poor information, and their own personal struggles than by the objective reality of the situation.
#7 Let toxic people go
At some time in your career, you will encounter someone who seeks to undermine you at work. It can be hard at first to tell the difference between honest mistakes and ill will, but after time, a pattern will reveal itself. You will realize that a person is “toxic” when they start to intrude on your thoughts and you start to dislike the person you become when you interact with them. In other words, they bring out the worst – rather than the best – in you.
If you find yourself in this position, you should immediately seek to minimize your interactions with this person. Figure out a way to extricate yourself from the relationship. This does not mean that you wish them ill or think that they are a “bad” person in the general sense of the word. (They are likely a good person with a serious flaw or blindspot.)
It certainly does not mean that you are a “quitter.”
It means only that in a world of limited resources, you are not going to change them in a time frame that is consistent with your goals. Luckily, there are many excellent workplaces and many wonderful potential colleagues: given the opportunity costs, it makes no sense to waste one’s time on someone who is toxic.
#8 Make empathy your superpower
There’s a difference between the empathy you feel when you imagine someone else’s situation and when you have experienced quite similar yourself. Obviously, I do not wish the experience of gender discrimination upon anyone, just on the off chance that it deepens their compassion. But a silver lining to being on the receiving end of discrimination is that it can deepen one’s understanding and awareness of other inequalities, some of which are far more pernicious than gender discrimination.
Be aware of your privileges
I like to think that I am someone who would always have taken people’s reports of discrimination seriously, but now, with some direct experience under my belt, I am more acutely conscious and aware of my own privileges (white, able-bodied, educated, well-paid, with immigration status) and how I owe the people I work with who do not enjoy these privileges, an affirmative duty to go the extra mile to level the playing field, and to take responsibility for my role in perpetuating inequality. Obviously, we all still have blinders, but we can all be more deliberate about seeking to compensate for them in concrete, actionable ways.
#9 Find role models from anywhere in the world
When Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away last week, many Swiss women I knew mourned. Justice Ginsburg is a heroine and role model to generations of young women even outside the United States.
Luckily, there are a multitude of excellent role models from all over the world, including some here in Switzerland. When I become dejected, I pull out Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, or similar books for adults, and remind myself of the stories of inspiring women.
#10 Devise your own strategy
The tips above are just a sampling of what has worked for female colleagues I respect and me. The best approach can depend on the particular situation and the personalities and goals of the people involved. But the meta point holds true: One has to have a strategy to address gender discrimination at work. Simply going with the flow and hoping it won’t happen to you will not work.
The good (and bad) news is that we are not alone.
Almost every woman I know in Switzerland faces the same pressures to varying degrees. If one of us gives up or gives in, another woman is just going to have to work that much harder. In contrast, if we hold our own, we can make the load a little bit lighter for the next woman.
But we must retain our sense of urgency. I have a daughter who is 12 and female students who are approaching their 30s. They cannot afford to wait a few more generations for equality.
Neither can Switzerland.
Alexandra Dufresne is a U.S.-trained lawyer for children and refugees. She teaches law at several Swiss institutions of higher learning and works with human rights NGOs in Switzerland, Europe, Africa, and the United States. She has three children and is one of the hosts of Komplizierte Frauen, a group of people of all genders working to promote gender equality in Switzerland.
Further reading by Alexandra Dufresne on Any Working Mom:
And in German: