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Equality: the women shaping the future today

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Marion Loher and Lea Müller

Published

03.02.2021

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Swiss women fought a long, hard battle before they finally obtained the right to vote in 1971. 50 years later, we asked pioneering women from our network where things stand with equality today, in which areas progress still needs to be fought for and how women can become pioneers. Their responses show us that the future belongs to neither women nor men. It belongs to people with visions who take action to bring their ideas to life.

The pioneering women behind women's suffrage achieved a great deal, yet there is still a lot to do for women's equality – something our surveyed pioneers from the Migros Pioneer Fund partner network all agree upon. One of these pioneers is Ondine Riesen from the pioneering project Ting, which is testing a new approach to our future social systems in the form of a community-supported solidarity fund. Ondine is Head of Communications for the Ting Community and the «Verein Grundeinkommen». The 40-year-old says: «I am grateful for the hard work performed by the women who fought for us to have the right to vote.» Although she finds it hard to believe how slowly such a social change is moving forward. «It's almost unbearable. Only when women's words matter as much as men's can we begin to form a society that meets our true needs.» 

Photo of Ondine Riesen, Head of Communications for the Ting Community

It's important that young women share their own thoughts, because there is every chance that those thoughts will be new.

Ondine Riesen Head of Communications for the Ting Community

One thing Ondine finds good about the current situation is that it is now generally accepted that women are «people with desires, dreams, intellect, humour, ethics, dignity and ambitions». «That may sound a little strange, I know. But this is a genuine accomplishment!» The situation is, in her view, less favourable when it comes to childcare, sexualised violence, knowledge, influence, lobbying, medicine and money, however. In particular, progress is needed in decoupling social benefits from wage labour, stresses Ondine. «The entire system is based on the idea that the man works and the woman married to him stays at home to take care of the children and benefits from his achievements. But those days are long gone. I don't understand why people keep clinging onto this idea. We're behaving as though people, societies and systems alike are unable to adapt to the circumstances.» 

Switzerland needs to catch up

Karen Rauschenbach came to Switzerland with her husband and two children four years ago. Born in Germany, Karen has previously lived in a number of countries, most recently in France. The founder of sustainable fashion label «The Blue Suit» and initiator of a new pioneering project that strives to support other labels in pursuing a circular economy, Karen was «rather astonished» to hear that women in Switzerland only obtained the right to vote 50 years ago. «It didn't at all fit into the image I had of Switzerland as an innovative country.» However, she then soon noticed that Switzerland was lagging behind in other areas, too, such as childcare. «I expected childcare to be just as straightforward and affordable as it is in France or Germany,» says the 45-year-old. But that was not the case. «I wondered how the economy here managed to function at all.»  

Photo of Karen Rauschenbach, founder of The Blue Suit

There are increasing numbers of young, committed and courageous female entrepreneurs. You can feel the momentum.

Karen Rauschenbach founder of The Blue Suit

For Karen, one aspect of equality means that every family can decide for themselves whether mother and father work and the children are taken care of outside of the home – and not that the system makes this decision. Whenever this issue is not discussed on an equal footing, Karen notes that it ultimately usually falls to the woman to take care of the housework, leaving her with no time for anything else. «As long as there is no equality in the home, it will be difficult to achieve equality in the workplace,» stresses Karen. She is pleased, however, to see women becoming increasingly visible in politics, with more and more young, committed and courageous female entrepreneurs stepping onto the scene. «You can feel the momentum.» 

Much education still needed

And this momentum is desperately needed, as emphasised by Nora Wilhelm, activist and co-founder of the initiative collaboratio helvetica: «Many people in Switzerland don't realise how much we are lagging behind compared with other countries.» A UNICEF study, for example, ranked Switzerland at the bottom of the list of European countries when it came to compatibility of family and work. «That's shocking and shows how much education is still needed.» Young women in particular are often the subject of ridicule and have to achieve more to be taken seriously, says Nora. But the 27-year-old doesn't let that daunt her. With her team at collaboratio helvetica, she is persistent in examining how we, the Swiss population, can contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Nora is a typical social entrepreneur (see information box) and appeared on the Forbes «30 Under 30» list of Swiss personalities last year.  

Photo of Nora Wilhelm, co-founder of the initiative collaboratio helvetica

There is more than just man and woman. We need to break away from this 50:50 mindset and recognise plurality.

Nora Wilhelm co-founder of the initiative collaboratio helvetica

In Nora's view, the biggest problem when it comes to equality is a «conglomerate of factors», which highlights a systemic problem but affects everyone. «We have internalised ideas about gender, structures, hierarchies and stereotypes, and changing those ideas will require a huge effort from each and every person.» She thinks it right and important that an effort has been made over recent centuries to fight specifically for women. However, now she believes that we need to broaden our horizons, as there are more issues connected with inequality, such as racism, sexual orientation and income inequality. At the same time, she calls for society to move away from black and white thinking and, for example, to consider that there are more gender stereotypes than just woman and man. «We need to break away from this 50:50 mindset,» says the activist. «There are more complex ways of life. We need to acknowledge this plurality and diversity and speak up for it, so that everyone can live their lives the way they want.» 

Visions, courage and thick skin

All three women want to make the world a little better with their pioneering project – a lofty goal. But it is big visions and bold ideas that pioneers need. Britta Friedrich is the Deputy Head of the Migros Pioneer Fund and has already lent her support to numerous pioneering projects. She knows what else it takes to succeed:  «To make progress and break new ground, you need courage and sometimes a thick skin. Standing up for your ideas also means being able to cope with resistance and criticism and seeing setbacks as opportunities.» Prior to joining the Migros Pioneer Fund, Britta set up an innovation department at the Frankfurt Book Fair. For the 42-year-old, pioneering spirit means not only thinking in a visionary way, but also taking actions to bring these ideas to life. «You can only achieve impact if you have a strong resolve to create. You need to be prepared to get stuck in and pave the way for your vision.» 

Photo of Britta Friedrich, Deputy Head of the Migros Pioneer Fund

In the area of social innovation, integrating as many varied and representative perspectives as possible is absolutely essential.

Britta Friedrich Deputy Head of the Migros Pioneer Fund

Marie Curie, Annemarie Schwarzenbach and, last but not least, the trailblazers of women's suffrage show that pioneering women have always existed. However, they were less present in the public perception, which is why pioneering spirit has been predominantly attributed to men. Today, things are different. «Pioneering spirit is an attitude. And this is not based on gender,» stresses Britta. Women account for roughly as many of the projects funded by the Migros Pioneer Fund as men, although projects are not selected consciously on the basis of gender. «Diversity is now considered a competitive and innovative factor,» says Britta, adding: «In the area of social innovation, I would even go as far as to say that integrating as many varied and representative perspectives as possible is absolutely essential. That applies to gender, but of course doesn't stop there.»   

Nudging against understatement

The differences between pioneering women and men are not so great, says Britta. However, the Migros Pioneer Fund is not completely free from clichés: «In our work, we now and then encounter «typical» female reservation in our female pioneers, who can sometimes be less assertive with their ways and ideas than their male counterparts.» Britta doesn't necessarily see this as a disadvantage, however. «If we see more potential in an idea, we will give the nudge needed to think about the idea on a somewhat bigger scale.» 

The three pioneers also give these nudges in the form of advice. «You have to be prepared to take a risk and do something that scares you,» says Nora Wilhelm. Karen Rauschenbach advises building up a good network, while Ondine Riesen stresses the importance of young women sharing their own thoughts. «Because there is every chance those thoughts will be new.» 

Social entrepreneurship with an above-average number of women in leadership positions

In social entrepreneurship, equality between women and men in leadership positions has already been broadly achieved. This was the conclusion of the first Swiss barometer on social entrepreneurship, published by the organisation SENS with support from the Migros Pioneer Fund (via the project SCHUB) in autumn 2020. The organisation surveyed around 300 Swiss companies that are striving for positive social, ecological or cultural impacts. On average, 46 percent of the leadership positions in these companies with a social mission were occupied by women – nine percentage points higher than the Swiss average. SENS attributes this to the high number of part-time positions in social entrepreneurship, which makes it easier for partners to split tasks in the home and at work.