Anna Stando is an advocate of diversity and inclusion and is actively involved in local initiatives that drive this agenda forward, such as “Advance - Gender Equality in Business”, “Lean In Network Switzerland” and “Capacity”. Building on her corporate experience, today she speaks and writes about gender equality, diversity and inclusion, and resilience.

My generation of Western women are told that we have won the fight for gender equality and after years of struggles, we could finally be and do whatever we wanted - just like the men.

Yet, recent studies suggest that the Covid-19 pandemic has erased decades of hard-won progress towards gender equality. If we revisit the metaphors that describe obstacles faced by working women, we can show that the business world is still rigged against us.

The broken rung - the first challenge to overcome

The “rung” refers to a step on the ladder or a level in a hierarchy. While men climb their career ladders consistently step by step, promotion after promotion, women often have to work much harder to get their first manager role. The odds for women of color, with disabilities, or belonging to the LGBTQ+ community, are even lower. This difficulty of getting the first junior management position is called “The broken rung”.

According to the ‘Women in the Workplace 2021’ report from LeanIn.Org & McKinsey, in the US, for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 86 women are promoted. In Switzerland, the ‘Gender Intelligence Report 2021 by Advance & CCDI concluded that only 36 percent of all promotions go to women. Apparently we still struggle with the idea that a woman can be an effective leader. It’s often said that there is a “big push for women” today, but 36 percent doesn’t sound big enough to me.

It’s often said that there is a “big push for women” today, but 36 percent doesn’t sound big enough to me.

The only positive development is that at the lowest levels of management the situation seems to have improved and women and men are promoted almost at the same rate.

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The infamous glass ceiling - does it still exist?

The glass ceiling is the invisible but real barrier women face when trying to get to the very top of the corporate world and become a CEO or a Board Member. In fact, so few manage it, that today we still say “female CEO”.

A recent awareness campaign by BrandedU & WomenInc highlighted that in the Netherlands, there are more CEOs named ‘Peter’ than there are CEOs who are women. Let’s pause here for a minute. It’s easy to read a statistic and move forward without truly taking in its meaning. More CEOs have the name ‘Peter’ than there are CEOs who are women – this can’t be right, can it?

It turns out it can, and what’s worse, it’s not only Peter and it’s not only in the Netherlands. According to a 2015 article from Watson News, in Switzerland, there are more CEOs called Urs, Martin or… you guessed it, Peter, than there are women. In the Swiss Market Index of 20 companies, there is not a single woman CEO. Zero.

In Switzerland, there are more CEOs called Urs, Martin, or Peter, than there are CEOs that are women.

The ceiling still exists and the belief that women get to top positions only because of companies’ internal KPIs further hurts the situation. When a woman succeeds against all odds, we are less likely to celebrate her promotion. Instead, we make her question her seat at the table and call her ‘lucky’, or worse.

The glass cliff - leading on the edge of failure

The glass cliff is a phenomenon where women and people of color are more likely to be appointed leaders of a company going through a crisis or recession, rather than a well-performing or fast-growing venture. In other words, they get the reins of a company that is struggling and likely to fail.

Why? One reason is that the company might want to signal change and the other that it doesn’t want to risk losing their top white male talent if it is too late to turn the ship around.

Inheriting a company that is falling apart might be an incredible opportunity to prove yourself but often – it’s a death sentence. Balancing on the edge of a glass cliff comes with a high risk of falling or even being pushed off, because someone needs to be blamed. What’s worse, when the inevitable happens, the stereotype that women and people of color are not effective leaders is being reinforced. Back to square one.

Unequal Pay Day

Even if women make it through all the obstacles above, they often get paid less for their work.

In the UK, a study found that 15 months after graduating, young men were earning roughly 10 percent more than women. Just imagine what that looks like after 15 years. In Switzerland, the 20th February 2022, marked the ‘Equal Pay Day’, also known cynically as the ‘Unequal Pay Day’. The gender pay gap in Switzerland is set at 14.4%, meaning that in 2022 women kindly volunteered their work all the way till February 20th.

In 2022 women kindly volunteered their work all the way till February 20th.

If that’s not enough, the gender pension gap is a mind-blowing 37.1 percent. It means that after years of putting up with all these obstacles, women end up poor in old age.

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It’s not only in business…

Kamala Harris made history by becoming the first female vice president in America in 2021 (!), as well as the first African American and first Asian America vice president. In September 2021 there were only 26 countries that had a leader who was a woman. The recent picture from the CEO lunch at the UN Security Conference in Munich in February 2022 went viral because all the 30+ leaders were white men. Women broke the record of winning 17 Oscar trophies in 2021, compared to 30 trophies awarded to men. After 6 years of fighting, the US women’s football team settled a lawsuit with the U.S. Soccer that will now guarantee equal pay for women’s and men’s teams. Closer to home, Corine Mauch is the first female and first openly lesbian Mayor of Zurich. The list goes on.

The good news? We’re up for the battle

Even though getting to gender equality often feels like a ‘one step forward, two step back’ journey, we women are doing our part. We look for and get the support we need. Networks like Lean In, where peers help each other navigate challenging situations at work have already done so much good for women in business. Exclusive networks of senior female executives like The Boardroom ensure that there will be more women in the boardrooms and that they will be there to stay, rather than fall off the glass cliff.

Finally, the narrative is shifting away from ‘women are the problem and just need to lean in,’ to a recognition that we must remove structural barriers ingrained in our laws, processes, and companies. A recently introduced Swiss law now obliges companies with more than 100 employees to ensure equal pay for all. It doesn’t go far enough, but it helps.

We have come too far and fought too hard to throw in the towel now and just watch what happens next.

And finally, organizations like Advance – Gender Equality in Swiss Business bring together more than 130 companies committed to gender equality to exchange best practices. Working together is our best chance to get to gender equality and I believe we’re slowly getting there.

When I was a little girl, I thought that having a career was the best thing life had to offer and I wondered why some women opted out. Today as a woman, I am amazed and impressed that so many of us are still here, working in corporations or starting our own ventures and doing our best so that we can tell our daughters that they truly can be and do whatever they want - just like the men. We are strong. We are resilient. We have come too far and fought too hard to throw in the towel now and just watch what happens next.