During the five years I have lived in Switzerland, I have interacted with dozens of male colleagues, clients, students, and journalists. I can list each instance that I saw a man stand up for gender equality. I can recall each time because it made such a tangible difference.
To be sure, women all over the world face gender discrimination in the workplace. However, the degree of discrimination in the workplace in Switzerland is shocking to women trained in peer countries, as evidenced by Switzerland’s consistently dismal showing in The Economist’s glass ceiling index, where Switzerland is right above Turkey, South Korea and Japan.
Fortunately, many Swiss men are committed to advancing gender equality. I am happy to share some best practices I have observed from equality-minded male colleagues, as they set a good example that like-minded men can emulate. Actions women can take, or actions people of any gender can take at a political level are for another essay.
Ten tips for Swiss men on how to promote gender equality
Before starting, I would like to offer a simple, back-of-the-cocktail-napkin test for determining whether behavior is discriminatory on the basis of gender. This test does not yield the right answer in 100 percent of cases, but it gets us there in about 80-90 percent of them, which is a huge improvement over the status quo, in which some people maintain that behavior is not sexist unless accompanied by an explicit condemnation of women.
My proposed test is this:
A workplace behavior is discriminatory if one would not treat a similarly-situated man in the same way and if the behavior could cause a reasonable person of any gender to feel disrespected.
It can be interesting to debate the difficult cases on the margins, but for purposes of this essay, let us keep it simple so that we can focus on action.
#1 Listen to women and give empathy, not advice
When I mention the prevalence of gender discrimination in Switzerland, I usually receive one of three responses from men:
1) “I am sorry to hear that.”
2) “Really? I am surprised by this as I am not aware of gender discrimination.”
3) “What did you do to provoke such a negative response?”
The first response is the most helpful. Empathy goes such a long way. A simple “I am sorry to hear that” makes one feel not quite so alone.
Comment number three is often followed by advice about how to change my behavior to avoid discrimination in the future. It is demoralizing. By the time a woman has gathered the courage to bring gender up in conversation, she has already asked herself dozens of times what she could have done differently to have avoided the discrimination. She has almost certainly already altered her behavior.
I can generally (not always) avoid the sting of sexism in Switzerland if I take pains to hide my experience, talent and ambition. In a past job, I was instructed to cut my website biography in half to match that of my male colleagues in their late 20s and early 30s.
I have seen smart Swiss women whom I respect disclaim or downplay their intelligence so as to not make any of the men in the office feel uncomfortable. The Swiss modesty norm is a lovely cultural attribute, but not if it is applied selectively to protect the status quo and to keep talented women from performing their best. In a world in which men acquire professional status by virtue of their accomplishment and their status as men, but in which women can only acquire professional status by significantly outperforming their male peers, I think it is important to ask: Who does the Swiss modesty norm help and who does it hurt?
Some other Swiss women I know with serious career ambitions have avoided the most severe forms of gender discrimination in the workplace by not having children. This is, of course, fine if they truly did not wish to have children. But if they did, my God what a sacrifice. We would never dream of expecting a man to forego children (or more than one child) because they might interfere with his career.
Blaming women for the sexism they experience, then offering advice as to what we can do to fix it, is problematic in that such advice is usually based on insufficient information. Spontaneous advice based on one’s own personal experience as a man in Switzerland usually does not grapple sufficiently with the gender dynamics at play.
Take, for example, the commonly-offered advice that if women want to be paid as well as men, “they just need to become better negotiators.” Now, I think it is fair to say that many people – of all genders, myself included – need to improve our negotiation skills. However, to blame the pay gap on the assumption that women as a class are not as good at negotiating as are men, is just factually inaccurate. The Harvard Business Review published an article detailing the social cost to women – but not to men – of negotiating for salary. Contrary to public belief, women (at least in the U.S.) ask for raises as often as men; it is just that they are less likely to receive them.
Indeed, having read many articles about how women need to negotiate their job offers, I tried negotiating my offer at a Swiss start-up run by men in their 30s who had offered me a job on the spot after a 45 minute interview, presumably because what they were looking for matched my skill set exactly. Instead of simply saying no, the CEO actually began to yell at me. It is hard to imagine that this CEO would have yelled at a man 13 years his senior to whom he had just offered a job.
Self-confidence, ambition, and leadership potential – seen as positive attributes in men – are often viewed as arrogance, pushiness, and bossiness in women. They are often used as evidence that a woman is “difficult” or “not a team player”. A difficult personality in a man can be forgiven as simply the price of ambition or brilliance – it can even be excused as “quirky” or because “he is a character” or “too gifted to be bothered by ordinary social norms”. I myself have excused all sorts of brutish behavior in male colleagues on the (misguided) theory that they were brilliant and therefore deserved a free pass.
In contrast, a woman who sticks up for herself, her team, or her ideas pays a steep penalty in terms of “unlikeability” regardless how brilliant she is, and this unlikeability will cost her respect. Because women in Switzerland are conditioned from childhood to be accommodating, modest and “uncomplicated” above all else, Swiss women often find themselves in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” type of situation, called the “warmth-competence” bind.
So, if you have career advice for your female colleague who is experiencing sexism, by all means do share it – but only after you have learned the facts and understood the gender dynamics at play.
#2 Do your homework
What about response number two, above? Many men I speak with here seem genuinely surprised by the mention of sexism.
We can’t all be well-informed about everything, and each of us has blind spots. But I am often puzzled when I meet a smart, well-educated and thoughtful man who is not aware of gender inequality in Switzerland.
It is like every able-bodied person who does not realize that a city is impossible to navigate in a wheelchair until she herself breaks her leg.
The problem is that fifty percent of the population cannot just “forget about” sexism. We are reminded of it when, at our own talks, we are introduced as the wives of our husbands, even though they are in a different field at a different institution. We are reminded of it when our male colleagues, ten years our junior, “mansplain” things within our area of expertise.
We are reminded of it when we give a presentation, and our male colleagues jump in to answer the questions directed to us. We are reminded of it when we are offered more job responsibilities (a good thing!) but not the basic increase in administrative support, title change, or pay that occur as a matter of course when a male colleague is offered these responsibilities.
We are reminded of it when our colleagues ignore us, fail to follow up on their promises, brush off our ideas, and act as if our successes never occurred, even when they are successes that bring in business or funding necessary to keep the entire shop in business. We are reminded of it when we are criticized for working too hard, for being too intense, too ambitious, too pushy, or for not socializing enough at work.
We are reminded of it when colleagues we meet at an apero politely inquire about the work of our spouse (whom they have never met) but not our own. We are reminded of it when our male colleagues at work kindly inquire about our children but shift anxiously in their seats when we raise an idea that might help improve the team’s performance. We are reminded of it when we are advised to put our family status on our CVs. We are reminded of it when we are considered aloof or standoffish if we do not flirt with the boss.
We are reminded of it when we mention gender equality and our male colleagues suggest that perhaps the real problem is our arrogance. We are reminded of it when a male superior shows up one hour late for a meeting in a country that puts a premium on punctuality. We are reminded of it when, at a work event or a conference, we find ourselves looking down for a second just to make sure we have actually not turned invisible.
I used to think that strange things happened to me because I am a foreigner who just hasn’t yet deciphered the code for fitting in in Switzerland. Then I began to speak with Swiss women. Swiss women reported eerily similar experiences, including the “am I actually invisible?” feeling. Swiss women of equal educational background and ambition, but fifteen years my junior, report being asked in job interviews why the firm should risk hiring her given that she will probably “just get married and have children” anyway.
My Americanness is, indeed, a problem in that I have not yet figured out how to take up less space in the room so that people do not find me so threatening; women who have grown up here are far more skilled than am I at navigating these mine fields. But, I can attest from observing many highly-successful American men here far less “Swissisfied” than me – the core problem is not my foreignness. Americanness can be forgiven, it seems, in a man. It is that I am a woman.
Reading gender-related news articles, interviews, or studies for twenty minutes a week would make a huge difference (I suggest starting with this brilliant article from The New York Times: “This Is How Everyday Sexism Could Stop You From Getting That Promotion“). So would asking female colleagues, friends and family about their experiences. A male supervisor could even say, “Gender equality is important to me. Is there anything I can do to improve my performance in this area or help move our office culture in the right direction?”
Women will often not talk openly about discrimination they have endured unless directly asked: No one wishes to rock the boat. The social cost of women who speak out about gender discrimination at work can be enormous. However, if you affirmatively raise this issue with women you know well, they might share experiences or tips of which you were not previously aware.
#3 Resist the temptation to compare women to one another, rather than to men
In keeping with the “listen and show empathy before you start giving advice” principle, it is important not to discredit one woman’s experience by appealing to the alleged experience of an entirely different woman. If you are in a work situation and a woman with children asks for more career opportunities, do not tell her that your wife prefers a job with less responsibility because she values taking care of your kids. The opinions of differently-situated people are often not particularly relevant. What matters is what the woman before you is reporting.
Women in Switzerland have developed a range of different strategies for coping with gender discrimination, in light of our upbringing, personalities, circumstances and goals. The fact that there exist some extremely successful women in Switzerland, or the fact that some women are genuinely not interested in pursuing big careers, does not mean that gender equality is not a serious problem.
#4 Get in the habit of mentally reversing roles to check unintended bias
When a man applies for a job, one would not dream of asking him, “How do you plan to balance your work and family responsibilities, given that young children get sick and have to miss school a lot?” or “How do we know you won’t leave us when your wife gets pregnant?” In contrast to women, men are often paid more, and treated more seriously at work, when they have children. After all, they have a family to provide for!
Similarly, when a man asks for a raise based on outstanding performance, one would not say to him, “Well, the men who are twenty years your junior seem happy enough, and by the way, you are quite a pushy one, aren’t you?” In contrast to women, men who excel are often valued and compensated appropriately, in terms of responsibility, stature and pay. When a woman works hard to exceed expectations, it is often regarded as unseemly, or slightly embarrassing. She is often regarded as flying a bit too close to the sun.
Learning to recognize these dynamics in daily life is essential to being able to intervene promptly when one observes gender discrimination. One male friend spoke up when he noticed that in a group discussion among male colleagues about whether to extend a job offer to a male or a female candidate, his colleagues criticized the female candidate for perceived weaknesses that they glossed over when discussing the male candidate. It was not that their criticisms of the female candidate were not apt: it was that his colleagues did not extend the same scrutiny to her male peer. When my friend pointed out this observation, they quickly acknowledged the disparity, apologized, and continued the discussions in a more deliberate and even-handed manner. A male friend of a colleague suggested to his employer that “home office” remain an option for employees of both genders with small children. The boss responded very positively. Another colleague actively solicits the inputs of female colleagues when men dominate the conversation.
Most people, in my experience, do not wish to engage in discriminatory practices but rather do so when they are rushed, tired, distracted or overworked. Given that we are all often distracted by our “to do” lists and competing demands on our time, it makes perfect sense to me how well-intentioned male colleagues could fail to notice behavior that seems clearly discriminatory to me. However, many people in this situation will react appreciatively when the unintended behavior is brought to their attention in a respectful – rather than in a condemnatory – manner.
#5 Recognize that change starts at home
There are also many steps that men who care about gender equality can take to promote it within their families. At the top of the list is supporting one’s female partner’s career – scaling back one’s own hours at work, asking one’s employer of parental leave, taking on half of the child care and domestic labor, demonstrating co-ownership of the child care and domestic “mental load”, or (gasp!) even considering moving for her work. Many corporations will not hire women for senior-level jobs because they assume that a woman’s spouse would never give up his career to move abroad with her, even if the assignment is just for a few years. This assumption is so basic, so self-evident, that it goes uncontested.
Younger colleagues in high-status jobs regularly report being asked whether they intend to return to work at all (ever!) after having a baby. Well-intentioned acquaintances assume that I do not work given that I have three children.
Even if a mother works much harder than her male colleagues, she always risks being seen as never fully committed to the job. Men who value gender equality can help weaken the stigma by taking on the brand of “parenthood” openly themselves. If our male colleagues were to announce “Kita closes at 6pm!” when leaving work, as one female colleague suggested to me, that in itself would make a big difference.
#6 Use your power to speak up
Even a small gesture of support can feel like an immense blessing. A male colleague of mine once stepped in swiftly when a male colleague behaved oddly. He used his power to nip the problematic behavior in the bud before it could escalate. Another junior colleague backed me up in a tense conversation where a more senior male colleague was being a bit defensive and dismissive. A third male colleague called me up to ask me advice about gender equality because he knew it was an issue in his workplace and he wanted the perspective and advice of a woman who cared about these issues. These gestures were small in the grand scheme of things, but enormous to me even now, months later.
There is another reason it is so important for men to speak up.
Men are often seen as “neutral” or “unbiased” in a way that women are not – a legacy of the worldview that men are the “default” or the “standard” and women are the deviation, or exception. Those defending the status quo always have a home court advantage.
However, a comment from a man sends a message to his peers of acceptable gender norms. We are all social creatures; we care what the people around us think and we often adapt our own beliefs to the norm in our peer group.
A gentle touch (“I just realized that everyone we have invited to join our Board is male; perhaps we can look for a well-qualified female candidate?”) is often enough.
#7 Be proactive about job opportunities, promotions, and wage equality
The status quo is often preserved through inertia. To achieve gender equality, we all need to swim against the current.
Are you speaking on a panel? If so, check to see whether women are well-represented among the other speakers and if not, have a chat with the organizers. Are you going to a client meeting? If so, be sure to bring female colleagues with you and be thoughtful about giving them a chance to participate actively in the meeting. Do you mentor a young person who “reminds you of yourself when you were young”? That is great. But make sure that some of the people you mentor are women.
Do you make sure female colleagues put their names on their own work product when their male peers do? If your female colleagues are reluctant to share their accomplishments given the pressure on women not to self-promote, do you take a few minutes to congratulate them for their hard work and success and share the good news with the team? When you have more work opportunities coming your way than you can accept, do you recommend a qualified female colleague for the job? I have several current male colleagues who do this, and I am so very appreciative of their efforts.
Have you asked female colleagues if they are concerned about wage disparities? If yes, perhaps you can share with them how much you are paid, just so that they can check if their salaries are in the correct range. If you are the person in charge of salary decisions, do you benchmark the data regularly to make sure that you are paying your female employees fairly?
But if you keep a note by your desk that reminds you to do something each day to promote gender equality, soon it will become a habit. I work now with many men who really value gender equality, and the tiny steps they take to make me feel valued and respected as a team member make such a huge difference in my performance.
#8 Consider joining a club
Mutual support organizations can really help shift norms in this area. Two women and I started a Facebook group of about 1,500 people called “Komplizierte Frauen“. We are pleased to have among our ranks several Swiss men, who are supportive and helpful allies. It is great to have their ideas and their solidarity. But there are many other such clubs and organizations. WE/MEN in particular, does excellent work. When you join others in this work, you will learn new tips and strategies and begin to see old issues in a new way.
#9 When you think you are too busy to promote gender equality, remember: Gender equality adds value in the middle and long run.
In the modern world, more issues vie for “top priority” status than we can handle. Some days you might be too tired, or too overextended, to think much about gender equality. I am too.
But developing the daily habit of promoting gender equality will pay off handsomely in the long term. To be sure, every once in a while, in the short term, there can be gender equality-related conflicts that appear like “zero sum” games (“We hire either the well-qualified man or the well-qualified woman, but not both.”).
A female colleague who feels respected and valued will not waste time and energy censoring herself, minimizing her talent, or holding herself back; rather, she will feel free to dedicate her skill, intelligence, drive and passion to the common goal. Small, consistent investments in gender equality will pay significant dividends for the entire team in terms of increased cooperation, productivity, and loyalty. Small investments will also help mend the “leaky pipeline” — the phenomenon whereby highly-trained women start to drop out of the workforce as they become eligible for more senior positions.
#10 Remember: It is OK if you make a mistake.
No one can master every issue; no one can remedy every injustice. We all have blind spots and places where our understanding and our compassion do not yet reach.
I know some men in Switzerland who do not value gender equality. I know others who actively see women as a threat. I don’t think there is anything to be done about them, and I expect their worldview will become obsolete soon enough.
But I know so many others who want to do right by the women in their life and just aren’t exactly sure how. Sometimes these men make mistakes and say sexist things or behave in sexist ways. But it is ok because it is clear to me that they are trying to do the right thing, and any mistakes they made are just the product of the environment in which they were raised. People can tell when other people are trying and when their intentions are good. If you are trying to work on this muscle, the women in your life will be grateful and appreciative.
So, thank you to all the men in Switzerland, young and old, who have taken deliberate steps to promote gender equality. Thank you to my many male colleagues who make me feel like I exist, like I provide value, like I am a full member of the team. You probably classify your actions as simply “basic decency” or “basic fairness”. They are.
But they make a huge difference.
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:
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