When my family and I moved from the US to Switzerland for my husband’s work, I was thrilled to find a senior-level, part-time job. At first, work was great. But then strange things began to happen.
I found, for the first time in my career, that I was being held back by sexism. I’m sharing my story to learn if other women have had similar experiences but omitting identifying details so as not to shame anyone.
This is my story – one of many.
People warned me that workplace discrimination against women was still widespread in Switzerland. But I wasn’t worried. I was happy that part-time work for mothers was relatively common and work-life balance was valued. I loved my career in the US – I was lucky to enjoy both significant leadership responsibility and time with my children – but the price was working almost every non-child-care hour.
My boss in Switzerland was brilliant and charming. Our work had social impact and was intellectually rigorous. My colleagues, mostly young men, were welcoming and smart. And I found it endearing – if puzzling – how solicitous my boss was of my childcare schedule.
Being myself, but in pastels
I worked hard on our first large project, putting in long days, even during school holidays, to meet our deadline. I did well and my boss was pleased. So what happened next seemed odd.
At first, I assumed things felt off because of cultural differences, and I needed to try even harder to adapt myself to Swiss culture. I was aware that qualities the Swiss often admire in Americans also often drive them nuts. Are Americans self-confident or arrogant? Creative or careless? Dynamic or just loud? I worked hard to dial back what I considered my ‘Americanness’: my openness, directness, creativity, ambition; and my proclivity for working late, through lunch breaks, on weekends. I was myself, but in pastels, with the volume turned down.
Perhaps I could have more responsibility when my children were older.
But I still kept getting the sense that something was off. My boss gave me work appropriate for someone with years less experience. A lot of challenging work that was in my wheelhouse was piling up. Yet when I suggested I could take on more work, my boss seemed uncomfortable. He told me that perhaps I could have more responsibility when my children were older. I was so surprised that I said nothing but, “Thank you.”
His earlier promises of work opportunities dropped. He stopped returning emails and started to exclude me from meetings. When I asked, I was permitted to join him and another colleague at a conference directly related to my work, but it was made clear that I was not to join in coffee break conversations, let alone important meetings.
Boxed in – the Motherhood Box
The feeling I had was not only of bumping a glass ceiling, but of being put in a box – what I now think of as the Motherhood Box. As long as I stayed in the box, my boss liked me. And it was comfortable: I was well-paid, not overworked and everyone was pleasant. But if I poked my head out, I was told to go back in.
As long as I stayed in the box, my boss liked me.
Couldn’t my boss see I was on his team? That we weren’t competitors? That if I worked hard and had more responsibility, it would help him? I assumed the problem was mine — I must have been doing something wrong. So I did what women often do: I doubted myself and worked even harder.
I told my boss: “I appreciate the respect you’re showing for my family obligations, but please treat me like one of the guys.” (Even using that phrase, I still didn’t realize that the situation might be gender related.)
The turning point came when my boss’s name went on my work, while mine did not. I asked if I could be listed as a co-author, but he said “no” and gave a flimsy excuse. Still eager to please, I gave in.
A ‘difficult woman’
When I finally pushed back weeks later against another case of being excluded, my boss explained his point of view: I worked too fast, thought I was too good for the job, and talked too much about my past experience. He told me that the other Americans he knew (all men!) were more modest.
The qualities he valued in males, were the very qualities held against me.
This criticism was effective. Not because it was true, but because there was nothing I could do about it. The qualities he valued in males — ambition, hard work, efficiency, creativity, initiative, passion — were the very qualities held against me. If I didn’t stand up for myself, I was put in the “motherhood box” – warm and likeable, but best left to a narrow range of not-too-challenging work. But if I insisted on working to the best of my abilities, I encountered the criticism strong women hear everywhere: too ambitious, arrogant, pushy, bossy, and suddenly not-so-warm. I would become that thing dreaded in the US and perhaps even more so in Switzerland: “a difficult woman.” (Read here about the “warmth-competence” bind that mothers face.)
As a mother working part-time, I should have been grateful with what I had, content in the motherhood box.
My boss is a nice guy and does not think of himself as sexist. But he will end up holding back not only the women he works with, but also himself; because women who are talented will either start to internalize the low expectations placed on them, “lean back” or leave altogether. (Some good reading on these issues is here, here and here.)
Discrimination against mothers – a game we cannot win
I started asking Swiss and non-Swiss mothers about their experiences with gender discrimination. My sample size was tiny, but almost every working mother responded with a similar story of her own. The research suggests that our stories are not just outliers. There is something tied to motherhood that makes this a game we cannot win. (For a discussion of some of these issues, see this article and this one.)
For me, this experience means that gender discrimination is no longer “other people’s problem”. No fair accruing the benefits of feminism without doing any of the work. For example, I have started calling out ‘mansplaining’ at meetings.
It also means I am voting with my feet. I am leaving my job, leaving the motherhood box, to build something of my own.
I’m not going to hide my light!
If I’m making this sound easy – it’s not. When my boss told me I was arrogant, I cried. Humiliating. But then I said something unexpected, even to me: “You do not need to like everything about me. But I am not going to hide my light.”
Perhaps that was a bit maudlin in a country that places a high value on lack of drama.
But the truth is: There is enough room in the world for both my boss and me to do our best. The challenges our world faces are so overwhelming that we cannot afford to discard the creativity, ambition, and leadership of half of our population. Keeping women — including mothers — in a box is unnecessary, mean, and irrational — but worse than that, it is wasteful. There is plenty of darkness in the world already. We all need all the light we can get.
Ever had the feeling you were stuffed into the motherhood box? Did you find your way out? Did you change your work situation after kids because of this? We’d be grateful to hear your experiences, opinions and advice in the comments below. (To comment on a mobile phone, please scroll down.)
Could you use some tips on standing up for yourself and what you’re worth? Start here: Negotiate Successfully, in Jobs and Relationships: Tips from the Expert and Dear Young Swiss Women: How to Fight Gender Discrimination at Work
The author wishes to remain anonymous because she does not want to shame anyone. She is a US-born mother living in Switzerland with her family. She enjoys hiking and traveling, meeting new people, and trying to learn the languages of her new home.
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