When the glass ceiling crumbles

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Institutional Communication Service

16 March 2022

A few months ago, we celebrated 50 years of women's suffrage. A historic date for our nation, and yet, half a century later, we find ourselves thinking about what goals have been achieved and what, instead, are the obstacles we still have to overcome.
We decided to interview Federica De Rossa, associate professor of Economic Law at the Faculty of Economics, director of the USI Law Institute and substitute judge at the Federal Supreme Court.

Professor, where do we stand on equality and women's representation in modern society?

Some steps towards actual equality have indeed been taken in recent years, for example, concerning the representation of women in political institutions (consider that at the last federal elections, the percentage of women in the National Council rose from 32% to 42% and that in the Federal Council we have three out of seven female ministers). However, improvements are still too slow on a global level in all other sectors of society. The WEF carried out a recent analysis on the progress of the status of women in health, education, work and politics in 153 countries. Results show that, at this rate, inequalities will be resolved only in 100 years. However, in my opinion, something very positive is happening: in recent years, people have become aware that equality does not only concern women, but it is an issue for society, which concerns the social and economic well-being of a country. I believe that individual and collective awareness is the key to change. It acts as a magnifying glass through which to observe with a careful and critical eye the dynamics that surround us in everyday life and helps us to identify a whole series of unconscious prejudices and outdated social constructs, which we must now eradicate with determination.

You are a professor, but we know that not many women hold leading roles or prominent positions in society. Let us think, for example, of the cultural, academic or, more generally, working environment. What do you think of this situation? How can it be solved?

The so-called "glass ceiling" is still very robust, especially in Switzerland. According to a recent report by Equileap, our country is among the three countries in which the "apparently" invisible social, cultural and psychological barriers that prevent women from accessing management positions are still very high. In short, there is no lack of women in universities and the workforce, but they fail to reach leadership roles. Indeed, the average global situation has slightly improved in recent years. However, gender balance, for example in companies, is still rare: according to Equileap, out of almost 4,000 listed companies in 23 countries with advanced economies, only 18 companies reach 40-60% of women at all levels (Board, management and among employees). Today, this is no longer acceptable. Coordinated action on several fronts is crucial: public and private stakeholders are called upon to make their voluntary contribution, but, on the other hand, decisive and structural legislative interventions are necessary. The law, in fact, also has a structuring and propulsive function. At this point, I believe that it is up to the legislator to accelerate this paradigmatic change in society.

And what do you think about gender quotas? Do you support initiatives of this kind? Why?

I favour quotas and other positive measures, binding where necessary, to achieve real equality for two reasons: practical and legal. The first is that countries that have introduced binding measures such as gender quotas, transparency and pay analysis obligations, paternal or parental leave, or other bold compatibility measures, are today close to achieving real equality; on the other hand, those (like Switzerland) that choose a softer approach, with gentle pushes and alibis that often prove ineffective, are still far from the goal. For the second reason: our Constitution requires the legislator to adopt measures to ensure equality in law and, in fact, in all areas of society (e.g. family, education and work). On the other hand, Switzerland ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women years ago, which calls on States to adopt any necessary temporary or definitive measures to abolish existing discrimination and break down stereotypes still rooted in society. It expressly states that these positive measures cannot in any way be considered discriminatory, as long as the privileges that men have benefited to date are not abolished and women do not profit from the same starting conditions. Switzerland has been repeatedly "reprimanded" by international bodies for the delay with which it is implementing its commitments. Still, it continues to be reticent towards any positive measure aimed at favouring the presence of women in the public and economic spheres since it considers it fundamentally, but in my opinion unfairly, discriminatory towards men.

What are the new challenges that women will have to face?

First of all, I think that future challenges must be faced by society and not by women alone. I also believe that what can and must be done for the future has been well represented in the extensive work of reflection and proposition implemented by the 246 women who occupied the seats of the Federal Parliament during the extraordinary session of Women 2021: it resulted in 23 petitions that cover all areas of society and that will be examined soon by the Federal Parliament, which will consider whether and how to act on them.

What are the scenarios you hope to see in the future, as far as women are concerned?

Margareth Thatcher said that "true equality of the sexes will be achieved when a stupid woman takes the place of a stupid man without anyone noticing"... Jokes aside, I hope for a society in which women do not feel they have to prove themselves more than men to occupy a specific position or behave in a certain way: a society in which women (and more generally every person, regardless of their gender) can choose their path without being conditioned by unconscious stereotypes, pre-packaged social models and glass ceilings.

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