Almost two years ago, my family and I left Zurich to return home to the U.S. Before leaving, I wrote an essay called “Adieu, liebe Schweiz” about gender equality issues in the Swiss workplace. 

I write this postscript to share my perspective on workplace gender equality now that I am working outside of Switzerland. This piece is a reflection on my experiences of working in two comparable environments: law and public policy in the NGO space and at several institutions of higher education in cities in German-speaking Switzerland and law and public policy in the NGO space and at several institutions of higher education in cities in the South, Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and Northeast of the U.S.  

Alexandra Dufresne
When I worked in Switzerland, I was often told that I was imagining the discrimination. It wasn't until I had many conversations with women that I realized: the problem isn't just in my head.


The dominant emotion I feel after returning to work in the U.S. is relief.  Returning to workplaces governed by U.S. gender equality laws and social norms feels like leaving the dentist’s office after a tooth has been pulled. Both the pain and the fear of future pain are gone. When I worked in Switzerland, people often told me that I was imagining the gender discrimination that I felt and observed. After a while, I started to believe them. After all, there were so many invisible cultural tripwires that I had accidentally triggered. I started to internalize the narrative that perhaps the problem was me.

Only after talking with hundreds of women — Swiss and foreign alike — did I develop confidence that the problem was not just in my head. Upon returning to the U.S., I realize that I downplayed the severity of the gender inequality I observed and experienced in Switzerland.

What is different in the U.S.? 

So, what makes my work environment in the U.S. feel so different? First is the critical mass of women in leadership positions. At the school in the university where I currently teach in the U.S., the majority of the senior leadership team are female. The Dean of our school is a woman, and the President of the University is a woman. The Governor of our state is a woman. The two legislators with whom I work most closely are women, as is the Senate Majority Leader. Most of the stakeholders of the public policy clinic I run are women; most of the subject matter experts I turn to for advice are women. In Switzerland I worked in the same fields but almost all of my senior colleagues were men. 

Second is the complete irrelevance in my workplace of attention to parental status. Whether one is a mother is a completely non-issue here, in sharp contrast to in Switzerland.  

Third is the internalization of very strong anti-discrimination laws and workplace policies as powerful social norms. In Switzerland, norms like timeliness, politeness, indirectness, consensus-seeking and conflict avoidance are enforced so rigorously by social pressure that they become automatic behaviors. Similarly, gender inclusivity norms are strictly upheld in the U.S. At work here, when men – usually inadvertently – violate gender equality norms, people of all genders call them out on it and they quickly adjust their behavior. 

Alexandra Dufresne
One of my closest colleagues at work in the USA is a man in his 70s; another colleague is in his 80s. In terms of equality, they behave like Swiss men under 30.

Americans who visit Switzerland are dazzled by people’s amazing facility with multiple languages. But multilingualism does not just come “naturally” – it is the result of the education system and society prioritizing linguistic diversity.  Similarly, attention to gender equality and inclusiveness more broadly does not just happen “naturally” in many U.S. workplaces. It happens because people have decided that it is a priority, in large part because it makes us all so much more economically productive. 

A fourth difference is simply the amount of time that has passed since women have won equal rights. One of my closest colleagues here is a man in his early 70s; another colleague is in his 80s. In terms of gender equality, they both behave like the Swiss men I knew under 30. To me, it's evident: this stems from the fact that gender equality hasn't been a priority in Switzerland for very long. Swiss women won the right to vote in 1971. 

The biggest cultural difference of all

A fifth difference is a cultural one about the role of work in women’s self identity. In Switzerland, I developed breast cancer. I received excellent treatment. I will always be grateful to the Swiss health care system for the extra years it has given me. 

But, there was one small thing. After surgery and radiation, I needed hormonal treatment to help prevent the cancer from returning. Tamoxifen, the drug commonly prescribed in this situation, causes exhaustion and depression in many women. My Swiss doctor was sympathetic but clear: there was no choice but to take the drug, and no treatment for the side effects. If I was tired and depressed, perhaps the solution was to sleep more, work less. This was puzzling because it is common knowledge among American breast cancer survivors that this particular treatment, while amazing at reducing the risk of recurrence, carries difficult side effects. 

Alexandra Dufresne
In the USA, it doesn't matter at the workplace that I have children. Whether you're a mother or not, it doesn't matter here - unlike in Switzerland.

When I moved to the U.S., I sought a second opinion. My new oncologist was a woman in her mid-70s. I explained the situation and she immediately said something surprising. She said, “You are a professor and a mother of three. You cannot afford to feel tired or depressed. It is well-known that this medication causes these effects in women your age, but that is no way to live. Here is a medicine to counteract that. This is the standard of care.” The medicine worked, and brought me back an extra two hours of productivity each day, not to mention joy – like getting new eyeglasses and being able to see the leaves on the trees again. 

What was so surprising was how seriously the doctor in the U.S.  took my career and how easily she understood its importance to me.  

The Equality Dividend 

I have endeavored to explain the reasons for the differences between my experiences with gender equality in the U.S. and in Switzerland, but what difference does it make? 

When gender discrimination is not an issue in the workplace, the strangest and most beautiful thing happens. You can focus on the substance of your work. If there are disagreements at work, you can resolve them free from the distorting layer of sexism. There is no subtext, no drama, no second guessing other people’s true feelings. You – and everyone around you — are all of a sudden so much more productive. When you make a mistake, as you inevitably do — it is not a big deal; you apologize and move on. Your mistake (real or perceived) is not a referendum on whether mothers belong in the workforce. The fact that your male colleague might be grumpy because he is having a bad day is not a referendum on whether he sees you as an equal.  

The lack of solidarity

Lack of sexism changes the behavior of female colleagues. In Switzerland, some of the least supportive people in my career were Swiss women over 30 who seemed to resent me for wanting to have a big career while also having children. My more senior female colleagues seemed to have a “scarcity” mentality — the pie is only so big, and if they let me have a piece, they would have less. When given the choice of helping me or using me for their own advancement, they consistently chose the latter. Even when it would have cost them nothing to be supportive, they were surprisingly ungenerous. When men were in the room (and men were almost always in the room), they would deny that sexism in Switzerland existed or that it was worth talking about. The lack of solidarity was shocking and frankly, devastating. However, it makes sense. I was coming from a world in which more women at the table generally meant more pie for everyone. They were coming from a world in which they had to serve men first and jealously guard the leftovers. 

Alexandra Dufresne
Gender equality in the workplace doesn't just happen "naturally" in the USA. It happens because the issue is prioritized.

In the U.S. I have never had a senior woman hold me back. My senior female colleagues have consistently ranged from supportive to incredibly supportive. What does it feel like to go to work every day and know that your female colleagues will support you and your work — that they are cheering for you, that they want you to be successful, that they do not perceive you as trying to steal “their” space, that you are not a threat to them? It is the most amazing feeling in the world.  

I too am different here in the U.S. The sexism in Switzerland sowed self-doubt about my own judgment. I was productive in Switzerland, to be sure, but not as productive as I would have been if I wasn’t so afraid of making a mistake, so distracted by hurt feelings and closed doors. Here I am happy and confident. I am no longer so afraid of making a mistake because I know I have built up a reservoir of goodwill among my colleagues. 

Resolving conflicts

Now, this is not to say that things at work in the U.S. are perfect. There is still the potential for conflict. People are still people, and it is the nature of people to have differences of opinion. But the difference is that conflict can be resolved on its own terms. If I disagree with a male colleague about a work matter, I can simply state my objections, he states his, and we work it out directly. Whether he sees me as an equal partner worthy of respect is not on the table. He views my intensity as passion, not hysteria. He views my drive as productive ambition, not arrogance. He sees me as a teammate rather than a competitor, my success a benefit rather than a threat.  Most importantly, he realizes that in terms of career aspirations, he and I are exactly alike, whether or not he is a father and whether or not I am a mother. 

Alexandra Dufresne
When discrimination isn't an issue, the most beautiful thing happens: Everyone can focus on the substance of their work.

Of course, my situation in the U.S. is not representative of that of the majority of women, given an unusual amount of inherited privilege. I am a U.S. citizen, of the majority race, a common ethnicity, the majority sexuality, and the majority religion, with no visible disability. I grew up wealthy with access to excellent education. But even though my unusual privilege makes my observations far less universal than they would otherwise be, it is worth noting that I enjoyed all of these same privileges in Switzerland as well. The difference is that in Switzerland, no amount of privilege could counter the fact that, at the end of the day, I was seen as (just) a middle-aged mother of three children. 

Moving forward

When I used to raise concerns about gender discrimination in Switzerland, a common response was, “If you don’t like it here, why don’t you just go home?” I resisted this advice for a long time, as Switzerland provided tremendous career opportunities to my husband.

But eventually I could not endure it any more. I had tried to “integrate” with an earnestness that, in retrospect, is embarrassing. Despite my efforts, many (not all) of my Swiss colleagues rejected me, and it broke my heart.  

However, I understand that “voting with one’s feet” is not an option for the majority of women in Switzerland, who would never wish to leave the homeland they love. So why write this, given that moving abroad is neither possible nor desirable?

I write this because I want women in Switzerland  to know that if they feel sexism in the workplace, the chances are that they are not just imagining it. I want them to know that what they experience is neither normal nor inevitable. Holding this perspective front and center is essential for change. 

I want Swiss men who cherish gender equality to have confidence that they are on the right side of history and that the actions of a few to challenge the dominant discourse will not be forgotten.  I want the amazing students I taught in Switzerland to know that they are right to push for change.

Alexandra Dufresne
I want men and women in Switzerland, who have grown up with outdated, provincial, narrow-minded behaviors, to know: Equality is not as frightening or destabilizing as you fear.

I want Swiss men and women who were raised with outmoded, provincial, small-minded ways of behaving that gender equality is not as terrifying or destabilizing as they fear. Indeed, it is not even un-Swiss. To the contrary, gender equality is a careful, sound, excellent investment. It yields dividends: collaboration, social harmony, lack of drama, and tremendous gains in productivity.  

Imagine where you'd be if you had equality

I understand that for people who live in Switzerland, change can be hard; Switzerland is in many ways a magical place, and change feels risky.  It is easy to look at the chaos in the world and think “We have a good thing going here; best not to rock the boat.” In contrast, the  American in me thinks,  “You guys are great.  Switzerland is amazing! Think how amazing you would be if you embraced gender equality?”  

I understand that the world looks different depending who one is and where one is sitting. But it is 2024 and we all have our work cut out for us. I find it a tremendous relief here in the U.S. to get to focus on my work without having to fear gender discrimination or pain and distraction it brings. 

Relief is a wonderful feeling, like going from Zurich to the mountains in the winter and finally feeling the sun on your face. I wish this feeling for my colleagues in Switzerland. 

Adieu, liebe Schweiz: a foreign feminist’s farewell letter to Switzerland
After six years, human rights lawyer and working mother Alexandra Dufresne is leaving Switzerland. But not before she shares an urgent call-to-action with all of us.