Traditional family models and lack of confidence are some of the obstacles holding women back when it comes to science and technology jobs in Switzerland. But female-focused networking events help open doors.
Switzerland may be the undisputed world leader in the field of innovation but when it comes to maximizing female talent in the fields of science and technology there is no debate the country falls short.
Tech company recruiters and digitally savvy jobseekers recently converged at a breezy co-working office in central Zurich for a round of professional “speed dating” organised by TechSpace. The wide-open windows, mint and yellow colour scheme and light wooden bookshelves of WeSpaceexternal link contributed to the relaxed vibe of the networking evening.
Several women showed up with laser focus — clear on the company they wanted to target and the type of roles they desired. Others came simply to take the temperature. Representatives from tech companies Digitec, Accenture and Swisscom allocated dedicated jobseekers eight- minute slots of their exclusive attention and got to know others over drinks.
“We have trouble recruiting a sufficient number of female talent because there aren’t that many represented in the applicant pool,” says Jelena Pejic, a talent acquisition specialist working with Swisscom, which provides telecommunications services in Switzerland and neighbouring Italy.
On average, out of ten applications the company receives for a vacancy, only one of them will have been sent by a female candidate, she notes. The challenge is more acute for information technology than commercial roles. In Switzerland, only 11% of IT specialists and analysts were women as of 2016, according to DigitalSwitzerlandexternal link.
Global demand for digital skills is on the rise. By 2026, the Alpine nation is expected to lack 40,000 professionals. Priska Burkard co-founded Techfaceexternal link with the goal of closing that talent gap by highlighting career opportunities and coaching women so that they have the skills and confidence to go for them.
The coaching sessions reveal women are often afraid of being accepted and might feel too old or inexperienced to angle for a job in tech.
“Sometimes I even hear they applied for an internship instead of a proper job although they have lots of years of experience,” notes Burkard. “This is also why we started with these talent matching events, because that's one way to take away the fear, by giving them the chance to talk directly to companies, to recruiters, without feeling the pressure of ‘I'm in a proper interview now’.”
That strategy seems to work. Swisscom said they were following up with most of the candidates they had met that evening. In a bid to boost diversity, the company already offers part-time and flex-time, a privilege more commonly used by female than male employees up to now.
Men, everyone seems to agree, are more likely to apply for a job even when they lack the necessary qualifications. Swiss men traditionally had the army to build professional ties, while Swiss women lacked an equivalent. The social structures in place still nudge Swiss women to stay home after childbirth. The World Economic Forumexternal link’s 2018 Global Gender Gap Report ranks Switzerland a humble 34th for economic participation and opportunity, and 20th overall.
Laura Seifert, the co-founder and CFO of WeSpace, knows what it is like to be the pair of heels in a sea of suits. She has a PhD in corporate finance and worked for JP Morgan. By providing a female-focused office space that also hosts events, she hopes to play her part in closing the gender gap.
“Society is still very gender stereotyped,” she tells swissinfo.ch. “The tax system and social security system give a very short window of time to return to work after you give birth. Most women just do not come back because the society kind of expects them to stay home. This is not challenged enough. Things like paternity leave do not exist here. Too many women are staying home and falling back into these old roles.”
Tech industry problem?
Emma Baumhofer, a Bern-based American, points out that Silicon Valley also has a terrible record on gender balance, so the problem might lie with the tech industry more broadly.
“Here it is not so much a young college boys type of thing but I do think there are deep cultural expectations of women in Switzerland, not related to tech but just to women professionally,” she says. “I notice a lot of casual comments with clichés of what men and women should be doing.”
But she is encouraged by the commitment to boost diversity and the broad array of networking opportunities that Switzerland has to offer.