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“Working models should be much more flexible”

Prof. Dr. Gudrun Sander is Director of the Competence Center for Diversity and Inclusion (CCDI) at the University of St. Gallen. She talks with Fondsfrau Anke Dembowski about how to make working models more flexible so that both, women and men, can combine better their job and their family work, and ultimately work more stress-free and thus better.

Prof. Sander, you conducted a diversity benchmarking study on the current equality of men and women in the Swiss financial sector. What were your key findings?
Prof. Sander: One important finding is that the recruitment of women in the Swiss financial sector is becoming increasingly successful. However, keeping and promoting women is still a challenge.

What is the reason that even today women have more difficulties in making a career than men?
I see three main points here: 1.) Many women work part time already quite early, and that reduces their chances. 2.) Many women change quite early in functions such as marketing, human resources or communication. Normally, they do not have any profit and loss responsibilities here, and thus, they do not get on well in their career. 3.) As a third point I see the unconscious biases – both of the superiors and the women themselves.

You just said that one of the problematic issues is that many women go part-time as soon as they have family. What insights do you have about part-time?
We have found that even a relatively small reduction in working hours has a significant negative impact on career development opportunities. Already with an 80-percent-job, we noticed negative effects on the career, which one would not assume. Of course, it is good to be able to switch from full-time to part-time work, but women prefer to reduce their workload to part-time work instead of using the flexible work models on offer.

What is the reason that part-time working is so punished? Is it because employees who work part-time actually also have another focus than the work? Or is it due to prejudices that still need to be eliminated?
Probably both. On the one hand, reducing one’s working hours obviously signals that you have other priorities in your life. But that does not mean that you do your job poorly with the chosen reduced workload. On the other side, there are unconscious perceptual distortions. They lead to the thought that part-time employees are less willing to perform, which, of course, does not necessarily have to be the case in reality. There are high performers, average performers and low performers in both, the part-time and full-time employees.

Is there a reason that every 100% leadership position is automatically considered synonymous with an 8, 9, or 10-hour day? Or why is it so difficult to fill a leadership position with two or more part-time employees?
I think that has more to do with the fact that we traditionally know it that way and therefore consider a management job of 8, 9 or 10 hours a day as the norm. There are certainly other models that work. It does not seem to make sense to assume that a leadership position has to be done in an 8 to 10 hour day. Agility is much more the topic. One should rather ask: what does it take to be a good leader? Is it accessibility when something is difficult to decide, or is it the ability to make unpleasant decisions? And so on. This does not necessarily have anything to do with the presence time.

In your speech in April at the Fondsfrauen regional meeting in Zurich, you said that “wave-like careers” could be a solution. What do you think they look like?
The normal career vision is that it goes up continuously. The peak is then usually between 40 and 45 years. But the fact is that in future we will have to work until 70 or more. What are your perspectives then when you are 50+? I think it would be much better if you could scale your career up and down. When you are young, you want to be fully powered and perhaps also be on the move internationally. Later, you may want to reduce a bit, because then often come family or further education. Afterwards you might want to get started again and then reduce your workload at the age of 60 to 70 again. Then you might want to give up your leadership duties and prefer to retreat to special projects that require a lot of experience.

Career advancement is mostly seen positive but the reduction of working hours is not. How can one motivate employees to reduce their working time, if the family situation requires so? Is not a reduction in working hours always equated with an end of the career?
Yes, it is! The problem is that careers have a lot to do with privileges and it’s very difficult to get down from privileges once you’ve got them. The solution is to give no privileges at all or only very little. Then a role change would be much easier.

What would be gained if the work as a whole was more flexible, if we had the “wave-like careers” you described?
Then we would have more mobility in the leadership. Now it’s just so: If one gets a great job position at the age of 45, one stays there until you retire. Maybe the person does not like that anymore, but does not want to give up its privileges. That person blocks this position for the younger and for women who would like to move up. More mobility benefits us all. Once I have had a leadership role, I do not always have to bear this high responsibility. I can also go back to a project.

What does this finding mean especially for women?
Women should take full advantage of the job flexibility offered, rather than work part-time. They should ask their partners to share the family care work in a fair manner. And they should not shy away from taking positions that involve financial responsibility.

Finally, can you tell us the three most important measures companies can take to recruit and retain more female employees?
Especially now, companies should take advantage of the Window of Opportunities, where on a senior management level, so many male babyboomers are retiring, vacating good job positions. Here it is important to establish talent promotion programs with a special focus on women. So companies can then better keep and promote women.

When recruiting, companies are already well on the way; companies can go on like this. In addition, companies should offer greater flexibility, not just rigid part-time models. It should be possible to have a 70 percent job, and at times you work 100%, and then you have 8 weeks of vacation – maybe during school holidays. We simply need work models that are more flexible in general!

Thank you for the interesting conversation!

About the Competence Center for Diversity and Inclusion CCDI, University of St.Gallen
The Competence Center for Diversity and Inclusion CCDI is one of the leading research institutes in the field of Diversity & Inclusion (D & I) in Switzerland. It offers organizations targeted support, advice and training to strengthen and manage D & I within the organization. The CCDI team has more than 20 years of experience in this field.

Prof. Dr. Gudrun Sander
Competence Center for Diversity and Inclusion (CCDI-FIM)
University of St.Gallen (HSG)
gudrun.sander@unisg.ch | www.ccdi-unisg.ch

Photo: CCDI-FIM, HSG

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