It may well be that this blog is mainly read by insurance professionals in North America, but here is a tale of passion and commitment that I have recently experienced in Switzerland (no, not Sweden). That’s right, the country of the Alps; watches; chocolate; picture-postcard mountain villages with window boxes overflowing with brick-red geraniums; and a country of some intriguing paradoxes. And, also, quite a few insurance companies.
Switzerland is incredibly advanced in many aspects — its financial and largest center, Zurich, has made it to the top of "best cities to live in the world" rankings for years. Quality is a must and precision is prized.
You feel a healthy, liberal attitude toward sexual orientation in urban centers, and the rights of the individual have traditionally enjoyed high priority.
Until very recently, there was a female majority in the government council — Bundesrat — and right now, three of the seven council members are women. It's reasonable to assume that having three-and-a-half women would be difficult.
And yet only 4 percent of senior leaders in the private sector are women — a number that hasn't shifted in a decade! (By the way, women's suffrage in Switzerland was only introduced at the federal level in 1971!) Although in the urban centers, women could vote in the 1960s lucky them.)
Months ago, a group of visionaries came together to launch a cross-company initiative and network — ADVANCE — to change the status quo. And these companies are heavyweights: ABB, Credit Suisse, GE Capital, IKEA, McKinsey & Co, PWC, Sandoz, Siemens and Swiss Re.
Emulating a model born in Italy, Valore D (Value of Women — the "D" stands for donna) where a group of 11 companies came together in 2009 and have now reached a membership of over 100 companies. ADVANCE is offering cross-company mentoring, role model exposure and leadership development to emerging women leaders in Swiss business.
But maybe, most importantly, it is changing the tone and dialogue around the issue of women in business — a desperately needed change.
You may be surprised to hear that, while in the U.S., the term "diversity" evokes race and ethnicity. However, in Switzerland, the term "diversity" automatically is translated to mean women (forget the term gender, which also is translated to mean women). It doesn't take long — maybe three or four seconds — before the conversation will turn to quotas and then, without pausing for breath, it will delve into the horrors of giving jobs to women, just because they're women blah, blah, blah. Yes, it gets very boring.
What ADVANCE is doing is creating a platform for a new conversation—for a new vocabulary and a new understanding of what women in leadership can bring as well as what it actually means. One hopes for no more scenarios from Lost in Translation.
ADVANCE has opened the door to talk about culture, mindsets, smashing stereotypes, building alliances, networks and fostering sponsorship. And this takes true leadership.
Could this inspire an insurance industry alliance that brings our companies' weights to the table to push that lead needle further toward gender balance in insurance leadership? I am pondering the prospect.
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