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Discussion on the topic of 50 years of voting rights for women in Switzerland

The women shaping the future today 

Discussion on the topic of 50 years of voting rights for women in Switzerland
Discussion on the topic of 50 years of voting rights for women in Switzerland (Photo: Shutterstock)

Swiss women fought a long, tough 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. Rather, 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."

Ondine Riesen, Head of Communications Ting Community (Photo: Swami Monday)

"It's important that young women share their own thoughts, because there is every chance that these thoughts are new." 

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."

Increasing visibility for women

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 – 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 quickly noticed that Switzerland was lagging behind in other areas, too, such as childcare. "I expected childcare to be just as uncomplicated and affordable as it is in France or Germany," says the 45-year-old. But this was not the case. "I wondered how the economy here managed to function at all."

Karen Rauschenbach, founder of "The Blue Suit" (Photo: courtesy of Karen Rauschenbach)

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

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. When 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 this momentum."

Much education is 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 aren't aware of 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. "This is 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 this 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.

Nora Wilhelm, co-founder of collaboratio helvetica (Photo: courtesy of Nora Wilhelm)

"There is more than the binarity of man and woman. We need to break away from this 50:50 thinking and recognise plurality." 

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 these ideas will require a gigantic effort from each and every person." She thinks it right and important that efforts over the last few centuries have been spent fighting specifically for women. However, now she believes that we need to expand our perspectives, 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 is more than the binarity of woman and man. "We need to break away from this 50:50 thinking," 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 major objective. 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 means being able to cope with resistance and criticism and seeing setbacks as opportunities." Prior to her time at 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."

Britta Friedrich, Deputy Head of the Migros Pioneer Fund. (Photo: Jasmin Frei)

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

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 around 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. "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. This goes for gender, but of course doesn't stop there."

A nudge against the understatement of women 

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 a "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 that these thoughts are 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 well achieved. This was the conclusion of the first Swiss barometer on social entrepreneurship, published by the organisation SENS with support of the Migros Pioneer Fund (about the project SCHUB) in autumn 2020. The organisation surveyed around 300 Swiss companies that are striving to make positive social, ecological or cultural impacts. On average, 46% 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.

Texts: Marion Loher und Lea Müller