Opinions - 02.03.2022 - 00:00 

What is the state of diversity and inclusion in Swiss companies after two years of the pandemic?

The pandemic had the world, and therefore Switzerland, firmly in its grip. Assessing the medium-term effects is still difficult. An opinion piece looking forward to International Women's Day on 8 March by Gudrun Sander, Director of the Competence Centre for Diversity and Inclusion (CCDI-HSG).

2 March 2022. Looking at the results of the 2021 Gender Intelligence Report disillusionment sets in: progress is stagnating. Whereas below management level, gender distribution is 50:50, 83% of upper management and 77% of middle management in Swiss companies are still male. A glance at the pipeline reveals that major changes cannot be expected, since recruitment for and promotion to middle and upper management, as well as positions of personnel responsibility, favour men. Women hardly succeed in rising above the lowest management level. In 2022, there will be no major leaps in women in management positions. Why?

Regression into old patterns

The already slow progress on gender equality in Swiss companies has been further slowed by the pandemic. Because under pressure, we tend to fall back into old patterns. Initial studies clearly point in the direction of a re-traditionalisation of gender roles. It was largely women who reduced their workload or gave up their jobs during the pandemic to take on even more care work. At the same time, women’s pay was more likely to have been cut during the pandemic than men’s. UN Secretary General António Guterres pointed out several times that the pandemic was aggravating the already substantial inequalities to which women and girls were exposed to worldwide, thus undoing many years of progress in gender equality.

Nevertheless, developments are also emerging that could potentially promote diversity in the medium term.

Sensitivity to disadvantaged groups has increased

The pandemic affected groups which are already marginalised more strongly than those who benefit from systemic privileges. Perspectives markedly deteriorated for people from the lower social strata who work in informal sectors or in low-paid industries, and for young people – particularly those with a lack of education or poor academic performance, and for people of colour. The death of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 led to a situation whereby the issues of racism and discrimination due to colour or ethnicity were put on the agenda – particularly in big corporations in Switzerland. Diversity strategies and measures appear to be becoming more comprehensive and increasingly are taking into account social strata, age and skin colour/ethnicity in addition to gender.

Major movements on the labour market and skills shortage as opportunities for diversity

Seco announced in mid-February 2022 that in Switzerland there were 58,000 job vacancies – a distinctly high number. In addition, a study conducted by von Rundstedt reveals that mobility between industries increased strongly. 52% of all new hires were from outside the industry, for many people wondered during the pandemic whether they wanted to remain in their industry or with their employer. Others were compelled to look for other work options. For example, rows of people have migrated from the tourism industry and will probably only partially return. International mobility is still to open to full capacity. Traineeship vacancies in several industries can hardly be filled. The care sector, which was already strained before the pandemic, is also struggling with migration.

The skills shortage and the competition for the best talents is thus coming to a head, and issues such as employer branding, the extension of job profiles and recruitment from different talent pools are making it onto management agendas and becoming the focus of D&I strategies. Consequently, people over 50, female returners and migrants, as well as other groups, will be provided with better opportunities on the labour market.

Exploiting new opportunities, increasing flexibility

The “collective field trial” on the basis of the obligation to WFH for months resulted in a situation whereby companies have a better understanding of how much (more) flexibility is possible, how framework conditions and conceptions of leadership have to be adapted in order to lead virtual teams better. The digitalisation boost during the pandemic did not only benefit the HSG, but also many Swiss companies. Both flexible working conditions and digitization contribute to a greater diversity by including a wider range of talent from diverse groups that need or value more flexibility from employers.

In any case, we are curious to see further developments: whether there will be more diversity in Swiss companies in the medium term and if so, in what form.

Gudrun Sander is Professor of Business Administration with a special emphasis on Diversity Management and Senior Lecturer at the University of St.Gallen and Co-Director of the Research Institute for International Management, as well as Director of the Competence Centre for Diversity and Inclusion (CCDI-HSG).,,

Image: AdobeStock / Jacob Lund

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