Gender Equality: expert tips from the top

Interview With Director Sylvie Durrer Of The Eidgenössisches Büro Für Die Gleichstellung Von Frau Und Mann (EBG)

We, the Explorers from the newly minted Gender Lab (GL), are embarking on a mission-focused journey. We have the audacity to think that by bringing together a diverse group of voices into a judgment-free (well at least we try to be) space using the latest collaboration modalities and social intervention methodologies we might trigger systemic change to realize gender equality. This journey is meant to take us from our inner selves and the biases we hold and the emotions we harbor outward to our families, friends and communities in Switzerland. We are only at the beginning of this quest and there will be generations of explorers who we will pass on the baton gifting them our findings, our curiosity, our unwavering support and our faint inklings of what our shared future might hold. On any given day we waver between unbridled optimism and overwhelming doubt.

The Gender Lab Explorers during their Interview with EBG director Sylvie Durrer (at the top of the table).

The Gender Lab Explorers during their Interview with EBG director Sylvie Durrer (at the top of the table).

We know there already exists great wisdom on sustainable change programs. We wanted to connect with the current state of affairs, find out what is working, and avoid dead-ends and past patterns of fixed thinking. On February 20th in Bern at the understated headquarters of the Eidgenössisches Büro für die Gleichstellung von Frau und Mann (EBG), we found a gleaming ray of hope. Director Sylvie Durrer has led the charge here for 7 years prior to her cantonal work on gender equality and her light burns brightly.

GL: For the uninitiated, what are the priorities of the EBG?

Director Durrer: Our mandate stems from Article 8 of the Federal Constitution; gender equality is a target in the fields of work, family, and education. More specifically, issuing from the Gender Equality Act of 1995, we focus on gender equality in worklife and in adherence with several international conventions of law, CEDAW and the Istanbul Convention, we address domestic violence. We take our direction from the legislative program and as an office within the Federal Department of Home Affairs we work closely with Federal Council President Alain Berset.

GL: You point out efficiency as a defining characteristic of the work of the EBG. Can you share an example of a small action rippling into a big effect?

Director Durrer: I want to call attention to two actions. First, an equal pay measurement tool, Logib. It is simple to use and makes use of already reported data. As it is voluntary, companies willing to self-examine their practices and address discrepancies and the root cause ultimately enhance their reputation. It is indeed possible to be both profitable and fair. This self-analysis tool has moved the dialog forward on equal pay. We are still striving to close the gap. My mantra, in German, French and English, is always Equal Pay!
This brings me to my second secret to calling attention to inequities: statistics!  We need to make the numbers relatable. When we say that there remains an unexplained 7% gap, that translates into 7.7 bn CHF per year. When we communicate on this at an individual level, our audience thinks, ”Yes, indeed, we have made good progress”. But when we generalize that to the cost for society, we communicate the urgency and magnitude of the problem. And the only reason women do not have these billions is solely because they are women. It is no longer an individual issue, it has become a public issue.

GL: The EBG has many broad reaching initiatives which need the full continuum of support. What is your advice on creating collaborations and including more diverse voices in the cause?  

Director Durrer: We are not going to reach all people. We start with what is possible. You can lose energy and resources by trying to engage those at the far ends of the poles. Look for where there is an opening to take a step further. Gender equality was for far too long in the domain of women. When I came to EBG in 2011, there was not a single man; now we have 30% representation. We must lead by example. We need more men working on this to make our programs balanced and credible.  
Perhaps the next wave could involve the older generation. Grandfathers are interesting to engage. Personal experience often dictates the level of interest. Until those unfamiliar with discrimination have lived it themselves they don’t relate to the issue. But now many have highly educated granddaughters and are surprised to hear of difficulty/discrimination in finding good job placement and advancement opportunities.

GL: Where do you face the most resistance?What can we learn from you first-hand experience?

Director Durrer: I’d like to share some guidance on stark resistance: if there is a brick wall, do not keep banging up against it but rather move on to where you see an open door. The time will come again when it is ready to open. Here is where we encounter resistance: Gender equality and language. It is so tiny but it is incredible how it strikes an emotional chord. Language belongs to all people and are an intimate part of your upbringing.  We have found that symbols are more difficult to move than the materiality. 
Gender quotas in politics. Gender quotas have been hotly debated and strongly rejected by the population. For a while it wasn’t possible to even speak about quotas, but now we are discussing quotas on boards indicating forward movement. If you come up too quickly with a certain theme, you will not only fail but you will encounter difficulty addressing this theme for quite a few years. Sometimes there are surprises. Now for board quotas the time is nearly ripe and when it is, we will only have to push the door a bit and it will open.

GL: How do you sustain your momentum and where do you find hope?

Director Durrer: We are going in the right direction albeit not fast enough. We see progress because there is a great concerted effort to bring change. We are marching uphill so if we don’t go forwards we will quickly fall backward. Equal pay is where I find hope. It is an issue for women, for families, for couples, for divorced couples, for offspring in both the short- and long-term (income now and pensions later). The unexplained gap is the hands of the companies. It is about justice for women but it is also about fair competition. Part of the explained gap is attributed to child care availability which is the work of the federal government. I am working for the betterment of society today and for coming generations. My work is about opening up more freedom of choice across gender. When individuals have the power to choose, they are more content with their choices and they can contribute to the community more fully.   


This interview was held and written by three Explorers of the current Gender Lab: Anne Murray, Anna Krebs and Adrian Ott.