Banks

Towards the end of the glass ceiling in Swiss banks?


Despite quotas for women on boards and executive committees, the corporate landscape in Switzerland lags far behind its neighbors when it comes to female representation at the top floors. Keystone / Martin Ruetschi

Among the most conservative financial institutions in the world, Swiss private banks have had to adapt to a changing world in recent years. Globalization and the push for greater transparency is causing them to reposition themselves, and managements are slowly starting to open the door to a “new” kind of talent: women.

This content was published on February 10, 2022 – 10:25

Paula Dupraz-Dobias in Geneva

As Swiss banks abandon bank secrecy and go global, while claiming Switzerland as a hub for sustainable finance, the notion of gender balance often remains a nebulous concept in the sector.

Although gender quotas on boards of directors and executive committees are part of Swiss law, which requires that at least 30% of the former and 20% of the latter be occupied by women, these remain under -represented at the head of companies. A recent studyExternal link on the proportion of women in management positions in European companies listed on the stock exchange places Switzerland at the bottom of the ranking. None of the 20 companies listed in the Swiss Market Index has a woman at its head.

The minimum quotas were not designed as binding obligations and no sanctions are provided for in the event of non-compliance.

Recently interviewed by phone about gender diversity, a communications manager at a mid-sized Geneva private bank began outlining a diverse range of investment strategies. Also, the journalist had to remind him that the question was more about the equitable representation of both sexes.

“A very conservative corporate culture attracts this type of conservative-thinking talent,” notes Anina Cristina Hille, diversity expert at the University of Applied Sciences in Lucerne. This is why some companies fail to raise women in the hierarchy, she explains.

In eleven Geneva private banks, where partner positions have long been held by men from a small number of founding families, only 10% of high-level mandatesExternal link – including associates as well as members of the board of directors or general management – ​​are occupied by women, according to financial news agency AWP. No international comparison exists with similar banks in other financial centers such as London or Luxembourg.

Bordier banksExternal linkGonetExternal link and heritageExternal linkfor example, do not have a single woman on the board or in senior management. None of these establishments agreed to answer questions from SWI swissinfo.ch.

Old mindsets

Many barriers still exist for women across the sector, including mindsets and a work environment that makes them feel out of place.

“Historically, private banking families were run by men, who passed them on to sons and grandsons,” recalls Nathalie Fontanet, Geneva Minister of Finance. “But we have to work on the role of women, on trust, so that they can position themselves in the same way [qu’un homme] within families and resume such functions.”

Nathalie Fontanet, who worked in finance before entering politics, has long campaigned for a law on gender equalityExternal link on the boards of public companies and foundations.

According to Christèle Hiss Holliger, head of human resources at Pictet, the process of improving gender diversity within Swiss private banks “takes time and requires conviction”. In 2016, when she became the bank’s first female equity partner, part of a group of more than 40 senior executives, she was encouraged by the promotion. This was to have an impact on the female question.

In addition to the high cost of childcare in Switzerland, an old mentality according to which women are the first to have to take care of the family is holding them back, underlines Simone Stebler, financial consultant at Egon Zehnder, a recruitment firm . There is a lack of flexibility in full-time jobs, especially positions of responsibility, she continues.

“This mindset needs to change,” she says, adding that women are often limited to middle or back-office positions in banks. “There seems to be a reluctance among women when it comes to high profile responsibilities, which require spending time with customers and dining out. They wonder if they will be able to acquire enough customers and if they really want to do so.

To enhance gender diversity, putting in place policies that would attract women to the sector and support them would be helpful, in his view. “You really have to approach this holistically, because there is no silver bullet.”

A change in sight?

Still, the situation is beginning to change in some banks. In 2021, Elif Aktug became the first female partner at Pictet, the fourth Swiss bank specializing in wealth and asset management. Elif Aktug, promoted from leading the institute’s €2.5 billion (CHF2.6 billion) European equity strategy, recently spoke at a panel on gender at the Building Bridges conference organized by the banking industry, the United Nations and other international groups to encourage sustainable finance.

As co-founder of the Pictet Women’s Network, she believes it is very important to “bring into the discussion” an understanding of women’s work experience in order to move forward. Only a handful of men attended the debate, a disappointing observation when discussions on gender representation do not attract enough attention from male leaders.

When asked by SWI swissinfo.ch when she thinks a woman will join the bank as a partner next, Elif Aktug replied with a smile: “Hopefully in less than 216 years!” The bank, founded in 1805, was run by just 45 partners in total, including the current eight.

According to Christèle Hiss Holliger, Pictet has introduced mentoring, group discussions on diversity and inclusion, support for parenthood as well as flexible working hours. In 2021, the bank hired a record proportion of women, some 45% of all positions, without specifying the figures for senior management. “We considered positive discrimination, because we want to achieve more diversity. And we constantly wonder why we don’t have women on the shortlists. This also applies to internal mobility. All our partners talk a lot about this issue.”

Although slowly, other Geneva private banks are opening their doors to women. Since 2017, Lombard Odier has had a female partner, Annika Falkengren, who has joined five men at this level. At Mirabaud, Camille Vial is one of the bank’s four managing partners. She was appointed in 2012.

More than window dressing

The desire for change also comes from customers, who put pressure on banks to obtain more diversity. The researchExternal link shows, in fact, that better gender representation leads to more innovation and improved financial performance. However, as in other sectors, finance is not immune to throwing window dressing at women.

According to Neil Tredinnick, founding partner and specialist in the banking sector at Lotus Partners in Geneva, private banks are looking for candidates: it is a “very strong trend”. He says he receives requests for a pool exclusively of women in a defined position or for a pool specifically including women. “Banks have clear goals to achieve to increase the proportion of women and in some cases that can mean a 40% increase,” he says.

According to the participants of the round table organized by Building Bridges, it is important, insofar as the Swiss financial sector wants to be a hub of sustainable investment, that the valuation of gender diversity is real not only in recruitment procedures, but also in placement advice.

“Diversity is a reality, but inclusion is a choice,” according to Simone Stebler. For institutions struggling to adapt to this reality, the cost can be high. “Banks have to provide employees, men and women, with what they want, otherwise you risk losing talent,” says Neil Tredinnick. “We will end up with a shortage of qualified staff and candidates, as well as a salary increase.”

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