• Managing people

Solving Managers' Gender Disparity

St. Gallen University study reveals the roots causes of gender disparity at middle and senior management level and offers some solutions


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Ranked 10 out of 156 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report, Switzerland is a relatively gender-equal country, though it fares rather poorly at board-level representation—at 25% Switzerland trails slightly behind the U.S. (27%) and well behind the UK (34%).

The Swiss case and its poor showing at senior management and board level is worth examining as it throws light on the barriers to advancement women executives face more generally.

Barriers that seem particularly out of place at a time when organizational cultures have moved away from the ‘top-down’ boss as authority figure, to a leadership style based on mentoring, coaching and fostering talent to bring out the best in people—a style women managers typically excel at.

Based on the analysis of data from 320,000 employees from 90 companies, the 2021 Gender Intelligence Report—a study jointly conducted by Advance and the Competence Center for Diversity & Inclusion at the University of St. Gallen, provides unique insight into the reasons why, while the Swiss talent pool is gender diverse, the ‘face’ of leadership remains very male in Switzerland—reasons that will have echoes elsewhere.

There is no shortage of female talent in the country. 52% of all university masters, 54% of university of applied sciences masters go to women and 36% of all graduates in business administration are women. Yet, after decades of pro-active diversity initiatives to hire, promote and retain more women in business, progress appears to be stalled.

Last year’s depressing figures show that, while the gender split in non-management is a straight 50/50, 83% of top managers and 77% of middle managers in Switzerland are men, and 75% of promotions to top management go to men.

Root causes of gender disparity

The systemic root causes of gender inequality in management, highlighted in this report, come as no surprise. They are universal, deep-seated and difficult to resolve. The working world is still largely wired for traditional gender roles. The standard career models are geared towards full-time bread-winners who have by far the best chance to make it to the top, and—with women still carrying the bulk of caring and child-rearing duties—full-time breadwinners tend mostly to be men.

Structures, processes and culture work like a big sieve, which efficiently eliminates gender diversity. The more strongly so, the higher up the ranks. One example of this is age related: 47% of all promotions to management roles happen between 31-40, an age that clashes with ‘family primetime’, giving men an advantage over women that is often maintained through their careers. The rush hours of life can therefore be viewed as ‘career killers’ for women and ‘career accelerators’ for men.

Can we afford to wait another 50 years for gender parity?

Since 2018, the share of women in management has increased by just 1% in Switzerland. At the current rate, gender parity might become a reality by 2078.

For real progress, we need to change the rules “More of the ‘same’ clearly won’t do the job,” says Alkistis Petropaki, General Manager at Advance. “To create real results, we need to change the rules of the game and make them equal for everybody. We need to stop trying to make the women fit into the current system. Rather, we must consciously create the systemic changes so that women, in fact, all genders, feel included and have a chance to make it to the top.”

St. Gallen’s Prof. Dr. Gudrun Sander adds: “Inclusivity is indeed a key part of the equation. It requires conscious effort to re-wire the business world, which starts with leaders who manage inclusivity like a business.” According to Sander, this includes: “Define a vision for the inclusive culture you want to establish. Second, define inclusion KPIs for all key processes such as hiring, promoting and retaining talent. Third, managers need to be held accountable. And fourth, very importantly, leaders need to model inclusive behavior in their daily practice.” Another call to action is to ‘redefine career’ by challenging current leadership norms and creating new career paths.

The Swiss experience may be slightly worse than in some countries, but better than others. The reasons why gender gaps persist at senior management level in business are felt everywhere. The solutions may be hard to achieve but, in a world short of talent and in need of the better corporate performance gender balance is proven to bring, they are essential.

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