I’m meeting Patricia for lunch in Zurich. I see her from the window, focused on her laptop. With her serious face, she is a bit too business and a slightly intimidating woman. But I know differently.
Patricia is the Program Head of Women Back to Business at the ES-HSG at the University of St. Gallen. I met her for the first time during the Professional Women’s Group Seminar at the Women’s Expo in 2017. She was there as a speaker, I was the Master of Ceremony. I had to introduce her to the audience and I had only five minutes to catch up with her before her presentation and make sure she was ok with my introduction. First impression? A rigorous and serious Swiss business woman. I changed my mind very quickly though. While she was presenting her program, I saw kindness, joy, passion and commitment. Commitment towards women who want to go back to their career and take the lead of their own professional life. Through her program, Patricia want to empower women through new professional skills, find a new career path and rebuild confidence. I was in awe. And I keep having this feeling every time I meet her.
The costs of a break
The target group of this program is women who take a career break and want to come back to the workforce. She confirms: the most common reasons for women taking a career break in Switzerland are the lack of adequate childcare infrastructure, and Swiss mentality. Of course, there are also expat women who follow their husbands abroad. But at the end of the day, most of them will also not reintegrate the Swiss workforce for the same reasons listed above.
So, the well known Swiss stay-at-home mum model (of working less than 50 %) is not always a natural or easy choice for mothers who want to dedicate their life to their children. But what are the real costs of a career break?
P: “The costs appear on different levels. The most direct is the salary level. When you come back from a long career break, your salary is lower compared to when you left. Then you have your pension. You haven’t saved retirement funds for a little while, and this will have an impact later, at retirement. After that we have the career cost, because it is very difficult to come back to a high management position. And last, but no less important, there are the personal costs: decreasing self-esteem, self-awareness and business skills.”
The whole picture is very crude and I ask myself if women (and their husbands!) have a clear idea about the huge and multidimensional impact such a choice has on women’s lives?
P: “The point is: it makes little sense for women to stop working because they become mothers. It is not great from business, society, economic, or the individual’s perspectives.”
Very clear message then. Despite this analysis, a lot of women with very good jobs decide on a career break, but coming back after several years of staying-at-home or a part-time job at low level is very tough.
P: “The problem is that companies focus on the gap or career break only in a negative way and they don’t give a chance to women who want to come back. Reality is of course that a job gap in the curriculum vitae could also be beneficial if a woman uses this in a meaningful way. During a break due to a prolonged maternity leave, a woman can learn new skills, continue networking, volunteer… don’t just stop working and isolate yourself at home with your children. My advise is always: if you decide to take a career break, for whatever reason, you must do it with a plan.”
Being a role model
Patricia has two teenagers at home. She is confronted not only with teenage issues, but also with the small village mentality of a where she lives. And as I have already said in a previous post Swiss mentality towards working mothers is not always 100% positive.
We are absolutely aligned with the fact that mothers have to work, not only for all the reasons listed above, but also because we are role models for our children. I´m a mother of a little boy and my little girl is due soon. I would like for them to grow up with the idea that it is absolutely normal that mum and dad work and share the house work and financial responsibilities of the family equally. Patricia agrees with me:
P: “Children begin to compare their families with their friends very early. It is very important to provide them with role models they can identify themselves with.”
This brings us to the recent publication of the “Lebensstile, Konsum und Zukunfts- perspektiven junger Erwachsener in der Schweiz“. This study is about the current Swiss youth. In that study 69% of young Swiss people say they prefer to build their family in a “traditional” and very conservative way with a wife at home with children (or working part time). I was shocked about these results as was Patricia:
P: ”Those are horrible results. I felt like all my efforts are for nothing! I had to ask my daughter if she thought the same.”
While analyzing this study, I thought about the importance of role models at home. If Swiss children see only that one family model, they will want to replicate that. A minority see themselves in a model where both parents are working full time, or dads reducing their working hours to stay home with children.
As our lunch continues, we discuss her career break experience while she was abroad, and her tentative move back into the Swiss private banking field with reduced working hours. She had a very clear plan in mind but, alas, it did not match with the private banking expectations. Nevertheless, she still found a way to build a successful career again and now she is helping other women to do the same.
I would love to continue speaking with her but our time is almost finished. Both of us have family duties to take care of. Still, Patricia continues to provide advise and insights and I continue to ask questions and take notes… it is very difficult to interrupt our flow.
Before she runs off, she wants to provide me with one final piece of essential advise:
P: “Make decisions consciously for your career. If you want to take a break, do it with a plan. If you stay in the workplace do not take too big a step back, which will jeopardies your career and your CV. Put everything into perspective. A lateral move in a less demanding position, which can reconcile better your family needs, is way better than a career break. Self-consciousness is key in such situations. And in any situation you find yourself in, never play the victim! Take the lead of your life and your career.”
With that, she leaves me with a big smile, filling me with details about her son’s sport championship, her busy working and privat time schedule, and a promise to see me again at the next PWG event. I watch her leave and I think of how lucky I was to have her to myself for an entire lunch-time.