ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - Swiss firms from food and beverage giant Nestle to banking groups UBS and Credit Suisse pledged new goals on Tuesday for supporting and promoting women.
While Switzerland has Europe's second-highest proportion of women in the workforce, it trails global standards on gender diversity in boardrooms and in management positions.
Consultancies EY, Deloitte and PwC and staffing agency Adecco all committed to increase female leadership in their Swiss businesses to between 20 and 35 percent by 2020.
This follows a recent survey by EY that found Swiss firms with at least 20 percent women in top management rated their financial situation as better, while studies by UBS have found companies with greater gender diversity consistently outperform.
Women represent just 6.7 percent of Swiss executives, according to Credit Suisse, compared with a global average of 13.8 percent and European average of 12.6 percent. They occupy one out of eight board seats, half the European average.
Swiss women-in-business initiative Advance has spearheaded the move, with Credit Suisse's domestic business saying it would strive for equal hiring in campus recruitment, while Nestle committed to grow the proportion of women in management positions worldwide every year.
Siemens Switzerland pledged to reach equal pay in the next three years, while IKEA Switzerland improved its paid paternity leave to two months.
Switzerland was the second-to-last European country to embrace women's suffrage in 1971, more than half a century after Norway, Germany, Canada and the United States. And it took two decades more for the Swiss supreme court to force one canton to let women take part in local votes in 1990.
IKEA Switzerland head Simona Scarpaleggia, one of just four female CEOs out of 78 in Credit Suisse's study, helped found Advance in 2013 and says the Swiss system needs to change to make things more straightforward for working mothers.
"Either you give up your time, which happens most often, or you get private support, which is very expensive. It wouldn't be so complicated to change this system, as many other countries are doing," said Scarpaleggia, who also co-chairs the U.N. High-Level Panel on Women's Economic Empowerment, said.
The Swiss government hopes women will help fill a growing shortfall of skilled labor, but it eschews many policies, such as quotas and more parental leave, that promote women elsewhere.
It is among the handful of developed countries that give new fathers no time off, meaning infant care falls largely on women.
High child care costs mean many new mothers opt out of their professions or return part time, generally not returning to full time until children reach age 9, statistics show.
Many women step off the ladder later in their careers, tired of being pigeonholed and passed over for promotions.
"Companies are surprised that, if they look at the statistics, it's often women between 45 and 50 who are leaving," said Nia Joynson-Romanzina, who left UBS in 2015 to found consultancy iCubed.
The Advance initiative is seeking to "change Switzerland one company at a time," Citi Country Officer Kristine Braden said.
"I'm quite optimistic because, despite the conservative approach, Swiss people are very pragmatic," Scarpaleggia said.