Women on Swiss Large Firms' Boards: A Long-Term Analysis of Gender Inequality

Thursday, 2 July 2015: 10:15 AM-11:45 AM
TW1.3.03 (Tower One)
Stéphanie Ginalski, Lausanne University, Lausanne, Switzerland
In 1971 – that is to say 120 years later than men – Swiss women finally got the right to vote and to be elected at the federal level. The very late establishment of this fundamental right, in comparison to other European countries, is illustrative of a distinguishing feature of the Swiss elite, namely the exclusion of women. This observation is especially true for the economic sphere, where women exclusion has never been formalized in a law, but became somehow more strongly rooted. Thus, at the beginning of the 21st century (2010), women represented 27 percent of Swiss Parliament members, but only 8 percent of the board members of the largest Swiss firms – and only 1.5 percent if we take into account only top positions (chairwomen of the board and CEO). Gender inequality remains then very strong in contemporary Swiss economic sphere.

Because of their absence in the leading positions in the large Swiss firms, we know almost nothing about the few women who acceded to these positions. Researchers have neglected the subject until now. The aim of this contribution is thus to fill this gap by analyzing the long-term evolution of women among large Swiss firms. For this purpose, we rely on a large database including board members and executive directors of the 110 largest Swiss firms during the last hundred years for six benchmarks years (1910, 1937, 1957, 1980, 2000 and 2010). First, we look at the evolution of the proportion of women across the whole period. Second, we focus on the 1980-2010 period – corresponding to a progressive increase in women – and look at the social profile of these women, focusing on some specific indicators such as education and nationality, notably in order to compare this group with male economic elite. We aim then to analyze this recent – but slow – progression of women by taking into account the broader evolution of Swiss corporate governance.

Following the recent work of Heemskerk and Fennema (2014) on Dutch firms, we consider the presence of women in corporate boards as a sign of the democratization of elite. In the Swiss case, this democratization was very late and slow – contrary to Norway for example, where in 2003 gender quota have been implemented – and seems to be more related to the changes that took place since the 1980s, such as the (partial) transition from family capitalism to financial capitalism, the globalization of the economy and the increasing internationalization of the Swiss business elite, as these changes affected the cohesion of the Swiss corporate elite which had been for a long time a male bastion.