Women’s Economic Equality as a Swiss Foreign Policy Objective: What Needs to Be Done?

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By Lena Holzer and Maria Isabelle Wieser – One of the key objectives of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs‘ (FDFA) new strategy on gender equality and women’s rights is to enhance women’s economic empowerment and ensure equal opportunities for women and men working in the department. What concrete measures are needed to achieve these objectives?

The FDFA’s new strategy on gender equality and women’s rights « […] sets the course for a visible, substantial and decisive commitment to contribute to a society that is more equal, inclusive and prosperous, for the good of all. »

According to the World Economic Forum, Switzerland is the most competitive country in the world, and the promotion of economic growth has long been among its foreign policy objectives. It is therefore not surprising that enhancing women’s economic empowerment is the new strategy’s first objective. Nevertheless, an international comparison of women’s chances for equal treatment at work could raise doubts about the feasibility of this objective: the Economist’s ‚glass-ceiling index‘, which analyses the barriers that prevent qualified women from reaching managerial positions, ranks Switzerland fourth from the bottom among OECD countries, ahead of only Turkey, Japan and South Korea.

There is a direct correlation between structural working conditions, gender equality and socio-economic and political influence. Laurin Reding’s blog post on flexitime and equal opportunities spotlights flexible working models such as part-time work, working from home and job sharing, which the Swiss embassy in London now offers its staff. The blog does not explain, however, what impact these modern working models have on opportunities for promotion and whether they are also available to senior staff.

The gender equality strategy includes long-awaited statistics on gender representation within the FDFA. The figures confirm that some private sector problems are to some extent also an issue at the FDFA, but in other respects the department is clearly ahead of the private sector. The proportion of women employed at the FDFA has reached 50–51%, markedly higher than the national labour force participation rate for women (75% compared with 83% for men). But among FDFA staff, 31% of women work part-time, compared with only 9% of men. This is lower than the Swiss national average (59% of employed women work part-time, compared with 17% of men) but matches the Federal Administration average. Both in the Federal Administration and in the FDFA, women are 3.4 times more likely to work part-time than men.

Furthermore, overall gender parity at the FDFA has no direct impact on the very low proportion of women in senior diplomatic positions (17%). This corresponds to the findings of the glass-ceiling index: overall gender parity is not by itself a solution to the deeply rooted, structural and historical problem of unequal power relations between women and men in working life. A lasting improvement in economic equality between men and women requires additional structural reforms.

In addition to awareness-raising measures, these include concrete changes such as the provision of sufficient and affordable nursery places, the introduction of adequate paid parental leave after the birth of a child, allowing parents to balance work and family life in a way that meets the needs of their family, and the promotion of part-time work for women and men. If Swiss foreign policy is to credibly promote women’s economic empowerment, the FDFA will have to take these kinds of measures internally and to incorporate them into its international cooperation activities.

The new strategy on gender equality is certainly a step in the right direction towards strengthening women’s socio-economic and political rights and fulfilling international commitments like the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. But success or failure will hinge on its implementation in the next few years. Women’s rights can only be safeguarded in the long term through a fundamental transformation of gender and power relations, which will require a change in socially established notions of masculinity and gender roles, and acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people. At the Swiss embassy in London, this would mean that in future both men and women could work part-time regardless of their position and that those working from home would not bear a double burden.

Lena Holzer is a doctoral candidate in international law at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva and co-directs the Gender Programme at foraus (Swiss Forum on Foreign Policy). Her research focuses on gender and human rights.

Maria Isabelle Wieser is a Master’s student in European studies at the Global Studies Institute in Geneva and co-directs the Gender Programme at foraus. Her research focuses on women’s rights in Switzerland, Europe and Asia.

Image: Keystone

This blog is published also on the website of the FDFA. https://www.interactive.eda.admin.ch/blog/Lists/Posts/Post.aspx?ID=128