Overview on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An Activist’s Viewpoint – Canton of Vaud, Switzerland – Part 3

When women do better, the economy does better. Empowering women is key to poverty reduction and growth.

Christine Lagarde, President European Central Bank

Part 3 – Bridging the Divide Together

Understanding the context of gender equality in Switzerland, knowing who the stakeholders are and how they function, and hearing the pleas from many businesses for an economic model that allows them to operate in a way that is equitable, diverse, and inclusive, should be the motor for change.

The Federal organisations, the regional and cantonal groups and delegates, and the leading women’s associations are all part of the big picture here in Switzerland, but I am preoccupied by the question of how these can work together to achieve gender equality. 

Another problem that needs solving relates to the damage our current system causes to our economy.  Studies have shown for many years that more equitable, diverse, inclusive practices increase our economic gains and stability as a country.

Swiss Women, democracy and the Vote – Understanding the context


3 years ago, Zita Kung, the first head of the Bureau of Equality, Zurich set up CH2021 with Professor Andrea Maihofer and with the support of many well-known women in Switzerland.  This association was important in view of the celebrations which were to take place to honour the 50 years of Swiss women’s right to vote. CH2021 established a platform, told the story of equality and acted as a thread drawing all the regions of Switzerland and their history together.   A piercing look at the country and its democracy was undertaken by and with the committee, which was comprised of women from all parts of Switzerland, all with different backgrounds, cultures, languages and perceptions – lawyers, sociologists, economists and business leaders.  I was delighted to be a member of this committee, representing CLAFV as it allowed me to share information on the work underway in the canton of Vaud.  Vaud is a shining light in the story of equality in Switzerland as this was the first canton to allow women to vote on cantonal level on the 1st February, 1959.

The objective of bringing together women and associations from every region in Switzerland to celebrate the 50 years of the vote was a clear one, while another aim of this association was to increase the understanding of the grave injustice suffered because of the refusal to allow women to vote in Switzerland.  It is important to understand how this refusal had and has affected Swiss society, as a result of an injustice which the Swiss government had allowed to continue until 1971.

For two years, the story of Switzerland and Swiss women was woven together and shared by CH2021, a mapping of the events taking place all over the country, information about books that were written relating to this subject, memories and history shared by many people. The celebrations that took place were made visible and many members of the association took part in these events locally and nationally.  Throughout the country people commemorated the anniversary of the right of Swiss women to vote, remembering and celebrating the events and the people who had participated in ensuring that right be respected.   CH2021 connected the dots, reaching out to women of all ages, all backgrounds, all regions to hear their stories and to ensure they were heard and honoured.  This work came to an end in 2023 but the result of the efforts made, and the work carried out, are still to be found on the website and have been donated to the Martha Gosteli library archives.

Before the closure of the CH2021 Association, a Manifesto was sent to the Swiss government by the committee urging that the record be set straight, and that equality of all women in Switzerland be ensured now.  Unfortunately, no reply to the Manifesto has yet been received.

CH2021 thanks the Suisse Romande- French speaking region of Switzerland – Vaud was the first canton to give women in Switzerland the right to vote- February 1959 (image from CH2021)

In my opinion, the work of this association was extremely important as it highlighted the suffering felt by so many Swiss women for so long and took a long look at the consequences of this suffering – an overt violation of human rights.  The effects and impacts of this suffering are still with us today as it takes time to heal, to gain confidence, to un-learn habits, to change systems…….. but the journey has begun.

Politics and Women politicians – Campaign “C’est decide, je me lance en politique”!

One of the areas that required and continues to require attention is in the political sphere where women still need to take their place in politics in all regions of Switzerland.  Some progress has been made in this area, let me give you some examples of this in the canton of Vaud.

In Spring 2015  The Cantonal Consultative Commission for Equality (CCCE) requested that the Bureau of Equality, Vaud organise workshops for women who were already political candidates or were interested in entering into politics. These workshops were repeated in 2016 and practical advice, tools and encouragement were given to women, helping them develop their networks, communicate with media, and express themselves in public.  Before the communal elections in 2016 the CCCE launched a campaign to encourage women to get involved in the political sphere. This campaign was entitled “C’est decidé, je me lance en politique! (I’ve made up my mind, I will go into politics!)”   

Left to right- Martine Gagnebin, Mary Mayenfisch, Maribel Rodriguez, Béatrice Metraux, Jacqueline de Quattro, Cesla Amarelle, Sylvia Villa (Image Politiciennes.ch)


The campaign initiated by the Bureau of Equality, Vaud (BEFH) and the CCCE was extremely successful and following this innovative work a group of women:  Martine Gagnebin (President ADF) Mary Mayenfisch (CLAFV) Fabienne Segu, Simone Chapuis-Bischof, Séverine Evéquoz, Aube Velan and  Delphine Oulevey, came together to attempt to ensure the involvement of more women in politics in the Canton of Vaud. This important work, combined with the pioneering efforts of the BEFH, has certainly led to changes in this region. More visibility of women in politics, better networking opportunities, badly needed discussions, focused training, and encouragement to women to enter the world of politics was and it is still underway. This campaign and these initiatives could serve as a model for other Swiss cantons and communes.

Left to right- Fabienne Segu, Martine Gagnebin, Séverine Evéquoz, Simone Chapuis-Bischof, Mary Mayenfisch, Aube Velan, Delphine Oulevey (image Politiciennes.ch)

Demonstrations for Equality in Switzerland: 1991 and 2019

Many women and people of Switzerland are not happy with the inequalities in the system and particular mention needs to be made of the huge demonstrations that have taken place in Switzerland both in 1991 and more recently in 2019 when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets throughout the country to protest, to ask for a more equal society than the one we are living in today. I took the opportunity at the event in June 2019 to ask Maribel Rodriquez, BEFH, Vaud her opinion about the importance of this event and you can see her reaction and responses here. It is important for the readers of this blog to understand how rare such demonstrations are in Switzerland. This is not a country where people normally go on strike or take to the streets, so the determination of the society to see rapid change should not be underestimated. The next strike is being organised right now and will take place on the 14th June 2023 the determination of many people to achieve gender parity should not be underestimated!

Click on image for the recording of this event

The importance of Education for gender equality

The Cantonale Consultative Commission for Equality already mentioned in this blog, is a commission where members are nominated by the State Council for four-year terms, and the head of the Bureau of Equality, Vaud presides over this group.  Created in 1990, the CCCE is a consultative group composed of members from different organisations, political parties, feminine associations, and social partners. Different themes are touched upon, women in politics have already been mentioned but the one that I found extremely important, during my eight-year tenure with the CCCE, related to education and its impact on gender stereotyping. Important work was carried out by this commission with the BEFH, Vaud on the training and education of teachers in gender equality, and the future orientation of the young people of Switzerland was part of this very necessary work and scrutiny.

Meetings were held with the Haute Ecole Pédagogique (HEP), Direction générale de l’enseignement obligatoire et de la pédagogie spécialisée (DGEO), Direction générale de l’enseignement postobligatoire (DGEP) and Cantonal authorities for Oriention (OCOSP).  While all these bodies shared their plans with regards to gender equality, it will be interesting to see how quickly the changes needed in the training of educators will be enacted by these authorities. Education is crucial and if we do not ensure our education system and our teachers understand the impact of bias, we cannot hope for a more equitable future for all our children.

Business and Gender Equality

Switzerland prides itself on its ability to attract important companies to set up their headquarters in the country, it also prides itself on the strong, pragmatic, innovative companies that work here. According to the World Talent Ranking 2022, Switzerland remains the leader in terms of among 63 economies in attracting and retaining talent for the sixth consecutive year. It is followed by Sweden, Iceland, Norway, then Denmark.

Since 2018, Iceland has leapt from 16th to third place in this ranking and we should not be surprised to see that Iceland has also been named by the 2022 Global Gender Gap report as the most gender equal country in the world with Norway in third position and Sweden in fourth place.  I have no doubt that the policies, legislation, infrastructures and education in the area of gender equality impact hugely on the ranking of these countries in terms of their competitivity and ability to attract and retain talent, vital for all businesses.

Imagine a scenario where Switzerland becomes an even stronger, more competitive player globally when attention is paid to the importance of gender equality, diversity and inclusion in our education systems and business practices. Just imagine the impact on the economy and on the society!

It is interesting, in a business friendly country like Switzerland, to see the great divide that exists between the needs of many companies for gender mixed teams and retention of women in the workforce, and the inadequate legislation, policies and infrastructures we have, in short everything stopping more integration and retention of women in the workforce.  

Parental rights and leave form part of the needed changes, and in an article in Le Courrier (20th February, 2023) parental leave was discussed.  The article highlighted the suggestions made by the Federal Commission for Family Questions (COFF) for 38 weeks parental leave in Switzerland. According to this article business organisations in general have not done enough to move these changes forward, however some of the large players in Switzerland are taking on this challenge.  Nestlé offers 18 weeks paternity leave, Roche 10 weeks, Novartis 18 weeks and Migros offers 18 weeks maternity leave where the last 4 weeks can be taken by either partner, in these cases the business community are moving faster than the legislators!

Business organisations in Switzerland

We Advance is an organisation with an impressive number of corporate and other members, (over 130 members) set up to advance gender equality in Switzerland in business.  

WeAdvance state on their website that equality means business and that “It is a proven fact that gender-mixed teams perform better, are more innovative and likely to generate more profit. A look into the status quo in Switzerland becomes an urgent wake-up call. In management and executive boards, women are still a minority. It’s high time to take effective action, because including women in leadership makes business sense” they state.

In addition to working with corporate members WeAdvance has partnerships with different groups including academic institutions. Each year they cooperate with the Competence Centre for Diversity & Inclusion at University of St Gallen on its Gender Intelligence Report regarding the development of gender diversity in Swiss business. In 2022, 104 companies were examined in Switzerland and the result were extremely disappointing. According to this report “if we don’t redouble our efforts, it will take 100 years to achieve gender equity in Switzerland and this is not good for business!”


Business and Politics

Clearly many companies are crying out for gender equity and eager to keep women in the workforce, so why are our Swiss politicians unable to bring the urgently needed changes to our legal and economic system? Why are our Swiss lawyers not taking a long, hard look at the inequalities that are rife in the legislation and urging immediate changes?  Why is this important message from the business community not having sufficient impact?

Are business organisations lobbying adequately for the changes needed to our legislation, our infrastructures, our institutions?  Why are the forces urging change not sitting down and talking with the policymakers, the regulators, and the educators?  These combined forces would ensure that Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion became the order of the day in Switzerland right now. 

As Weadvance rightly noted it is ‘an urgent wake-up call‘ for business and for Switzerland.

Let’s all work together!

The People, organisations and initiatives underway in Switzerland

Finally, I wanted to share the work of some of the people and the organisations that I have come across in my work on equality in the Canton of Vaud and beyond. These are organisations and individuals that are wholeheartedly invested in moving the issue of gender equality forward.

In the field of Education special mention to

  • SEM (Succes, Egalite Mixite) – for schools – helping our children succeed. This organization was set up by Eglantine Jamet and Sigolene Chavannes and it works with schools in Switzerland.
  • Mod-Elle – Andrea Delannoy – bringing role models to schools to encourage equality.
  • Robert F Kennedy Human Rights Foundation, Switzerland– Human Rights Education in schools with human rights defenders. This organization has been active in the teaching of Human Rights in schools, bringing human rights defenders to talk to students and offering schools a Human Rights defender’s photo exhibition on demand.
  • Inspiring Girls – an international organisation bringing inspiration and leadership to schools.

Equality and families

  • Thriving Talents – Deborah Croft and Natalie Wilkins – are helping families and companies to find the right work balance, good for families and our entire society.

Women in Business

  • Artemia – Sigolene Chavannes, Eglantine Jamet – headhunting consultancy for women Artemia (located in Neuchatel, Lausanne and now Zurich)

Equality and Journalism

  • Decadrée – working for Equality in Media, winner of the CLAFV Equality prize.
  • Strukurelle – supports institutions and companies in the digital, demographic, and environmental transition.

In my time working in the equality space in Vaud and, beyond this canton in the other regions of Switzerland, I have come across some extraordinary women and men working away, chipping away trying to make the workplace and the world a more equal place.  This blog is just an attempt to draw together some parts of the complex puzzle and make the big picture more accessible – to better enhance the understanding of the equality space.

We need to know how the system works in Switzerland, and then work together to ensure Switzerland finally reaches the place where all people are treated as equal human beings.

I started this set of blogs giving you information about Ireland, an absolute island when it came to equality and gender parity issues back in the 70s, 80s and even the 90s. However, thanks to their entry into the EU and the legislation that followed, Irish legislators, regulators and the justice system were forced to identify and correct the discriminations which existed in the system, of course there is always more to be done. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission website is a good place to search for information on where the country stands in terms of these issues today.

In Switzerland there is a pressing need for our regulators, legislators, justice system and business groups to carry out the work needed for gender parity to become both obligatory and practiced in our society.  Swiss people, women, and families deserve a system which respects and protects gender parity, equality and equal opportunities for all.

An interactive copy of this table can be downloaded below.

Click to access gender-equality-in-switzerland-table-2.pdf

Read part 1 of this blog here.

Read part 2 of this blog here.

Mary Mayenfisch-Tobin, February 2023

Article edited by Jo Greaney


2 thoughts on “Overview on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An Activist’s Viewpoint – Canton of Vaud, Switzerland – Part 3

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