"Raven Mothers" struggle on Swiss corporate ladder

ZURICH (Reuters Life!) - Women hold the top three jobs in Swiss politics for the first time, but mothers who have careers are still criticized in a country where women have only been able to vote in national elections since 1971.

Swiss President and Economy Minister Doris Leuthard (R) speaks next to Swiss Interior Minister Didier Burkhalter during a news conference after Switzerland's popular votes, in Bern March 7, 2010. REUTERS/Michael Buholzer

Some newspapers hailed the rise of three women to the posts of president and speakers of both parliamentary houses this year as a sign of progress.

But critics say the trio’s success is unusual in Switzerland, where women face more barriers to full-time careers than elsewhere in Europe and working mothers are often labeled “Rabenmutter” or Raven Mother, a term used for those who neglect their children.

“In Switzerland, there’s a relatively conservative social image of women’s roles and motherhood,” said Irene Kriesi, a sociologist at the University of Zurich.

“Many people -- even among the younger generation -- are convinced that children will suffer if they are not taken care of pretty much exclusively by their mothers,” she said. “There’s constant pressure. A mum who works quite a bit always has to justify herself to others.”

Switzerland, where the foreign and justice ministers are also women, ranks 27th globally in the percentage of female MPs, ahead of Austria, Canada, Britain and France, the Interparliamentary Union said.

However, it lags the Scandinavian countries, Britain, Austria, Germany and France in the number of women on company boards, the European Professional Women’s Network said according to its 2008 data. It also said that about half the female board members of Swiss companies were foreigners.

Among the hurdles Swiss career mothers face are state schools with long, unsupervised lunch breaks, statutory paid maternity leave that is among the shortest in Europe, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO), and a tax system with a “marriage penalty” that discourages a second household wage earner.

Equality between men and women became a constitutional right in 1981 but a federal law banning discrimination at work did not come into force until 1996. Federal statutory maternity leave of 14 weeks at 80 percent salary was implemented only in 2005.

“If we look at the integration of women into high-level jobs in the business world, we see that developments have lagged those in politics,” Pascale Bruderer Wyss, speaker of parliament’s lower house and one of the trio, told Reuters.

“Integrating women in the workplace is a necessity, especially given demographics, and is also demanded by the economy.”


The charge against career mothers is led by the magazine Weltwoche, a weekly with readership of about 350,000.

A recent article was called “Error of Equality” and another last summer took Jasmin Staiblin, the head of engineering group ABB’s Swiss operations, to task for not publicizing what sort of day care she had arranged for her baby.

The SVP, Switzerland’s most-popular political party, says children should be raised at home. Last year SVP-Vice President Jasmin Hutter courted controversy when she said she was resigning her post because she was pregnant, in line with her party’s stance.

Both Hutter and Staiblin declined to be interviewed.

“Media often accuse the SVP of putting women back in the kitchen. But that’s not true,” said SVP parliamentarian Sylvia Flueckiger, a mother of two who also runs a business.

Flueckiger said extending paid maternity leave would lead to more unemployment or jobs being moved abroad.

With some of the world’s highest salaries and excellent state schools and low-cost universities, many Swiss are able to support a family on a single income.

Labor shortages have been bridged by immigration rather than by employing more women.

“There’s potential that’s not being used, that’s highly educated,” said Gudrun Sander of the University of St. Gallen, who runs a scheme helping women take up careers again.

More than two-thirds of working women in Switzerland are employed part time, one of the highest rates in Europe, according Swiss statistics office data.

Sita Mazumder, of the Institute for Financial Services Zug, said the businesses ought to want more mothers because they were more loyal and better able to cope with stress.

“Nearly every company I’ve met wants to have more women,” she said. “But the big challenge is the business culture.”

“I frequently encounter the response (to ideas for promoting diversity) - well that’s nice but we’re here to make money.”

A 2005 study by Prognos found that companies in the city of Basel who implemented family-friendly measures came out ahead because they saved on the expense of hiring new employees.

Though Kriesi thought it would be some time before the number of women working full-time rose, Sander was more upbeat.

“If you look at cost-benefit analyses, it just makes sense.”

Editing by Paul Casciato