The action of women in today’s Boards of Directors

CSDA Prize 2021 : Doris Russi-Shurter (right) and Dominique Faesch (left) – Photo : Copyright Sarah Carp

As part of its partnership with the Cercle Suisse des Administratrices (CSDA), Business School Lausanne hosted a day of training for women who are active on, or are  preparing to join a Board of Directors. Led by journalist Romaine Jean, the “Public Speaking” seminar prepares participants to master the various aspects of direct expression.

On this occasion, we had the pleasure of interviewing Dominique Faesch, President of the CSDA, and to review with her the action of women in the Boards of Directors.

Let’s start at the beginning: who is the Cercle Suisse Des Administratrices (CSDA) for?

The CSDA has about 250 members. 75% of them are active on a Board of Directors or a Foundation Board. For the CSDA, the quality of a Director is acquired in these two forms. These women board members appreciate the visibility and networking opportunities we provide. Each year we increase the number of our active board members. The quality and importance of their mandates increases every year. This creates emulation. Being a member of the CSDA is a testimonial to the skills of our members in their Councils. We also have 25% of seats reserved for members who have not yet served on the Board. We want to offer them the opportunity to train, to meet each other, a sort of springboard to a first mandate. The number of places available for members who are not currently serving on a Board is limited to a maximum of 25% of the total membership. We work in a logic of communicating vessels.

Beyond the principle of equality, why is it important for women to sit on boards?

There is a well-recognized principle today, and one that I practiced a lot back in my MBA days in the 2000s: a group works better if it is representative of diversity. I mean real diversity, i.e., we don’t settle into a rut after having recognized that we are diverse from the start. The mere diversity of men and women is not enough to avoid this situation. We must not establish an unlimited respect, and lose sight of the element of competition. Of respectful competition, naturally. This allows for the diversity of experience that leads to performance.

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You also need soft skills that allow you to listen to the other person when he or she expresses themselves with a different vocabulary. The engineer and the financier do not speak the same language. Soft skills allow us to listen and to learn what the other person has to say. Diversity and the ability to listen are aimed at the success of all. At the Board level, it is no longer a question of personal ego. This approach is important today, because the Board aims at the sustainability of the company, and not only at the objective of generating dividends. Today, the Board is the guarantor of the strategy, of the compliance of the figures, but above all the long-term sustainability of the company for the stakeholders, the shareholders but also the employees, the suppliers, and the customers. We need a group that works as a college, which reaches a consensus, but challenges the decisions. This is the proper orchestration of a Board.

The diversity served by the presence of women is not only gender diversity, but also the diversity of skills according to the life cycle of the company.

Have you seen the effect of the presence of women?

In an all-male council, the arrival of a woman raises questions. It is not clear what a woman can bring. Some people think of her emotional side. There are some old ideas like that. I hope that in a college, if the woman is competent, the haircut or the fact that she wears a skirt is quickly forgotten …. Personality trumps everything else. 

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Ideally, there should be more than one woman so that there is a good distribution and a good acceptance, a good reinforcement of this legitimacy to sit with a gender diversity.

I would like to give you the example of the Board of Directors of Helvetia Insurance, winner of the Prix du Cercle 2021, where a woman is President, Mrs. Doris Russi-Schurter. She was very involved during the COVID period. She wanted weekly Councils, even if they were small. Not all Councils have done this. This is due to Ms. Russi-Schurter’s personality and hard work. Is it because she is a woman? It’s hard to say, but in any case, she is a committed person.

How have men reacted to this?

In older generations, men see two types of women. They were used to seeing women at home, often not very active professionally. Suddenly, they were faced with personalities committed to their profession at the same level as them. So, there’s a dichotomy that they had to face that was perhaps surprising. 

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Because it was easy to know that one’s wife was at home or in a part-time job, according to a well-defined pattern, perhaps less demanding, or perhaps not. But in any case, a woman to whom these men did not confront their skills. I think that in these older generations, the arrival of a woman on the Board can be a discovery. The younger generations no longer have these questions. Perhaps today, some gentlemen will be moved by the fact that we give preference to female candidates at the same level of competence, simply because we must show a certain number of women in the activity reports. This can create discomfort, a disturbance among men. And that is a pity.

What is the situation in Switzerland with regard to the presence of women in Boards of Directors?

At the CSDA, we base our findings on the Schilling report, which analyzes the 120 largest public and private sector employers in Switzerland. In 2021, 24% of the employees are women, compared to 23% in 2020, which is a slight increase. What is interesting is that one third of the new mandates awarded in 2021 were to women. This is a strong progression, which shows there are more women who are available, and that there is an interest on the part of the boards to renew their seats with more diversity.

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And then there is the evolution of the law on the corporation, whose article Art. 734f of the CO, indicates that from 2026 onwards, quoted companies that do not have 20% of women in management and 30% of women on the Board will have to produce a report that explains why. This is an incentive, there is no obligation, no control, etc. But it clearly indicates that 30% women are desired on the Boards. We will see how the situation evolves in the next few years. 

In France, it is 45%, but there are quotas. In Germany, quotas are being implemented (2021). The law approved by the German government aims to oblige large, listed companies to appoint at least one woman to their board of directors… (Reuters).

On the Boards of the 100 largest listed companies, women represent only 11.5% of the seats.

Compared to other countries, Switzerland is therefore more or less efficient, depending on the sample base used. In family-owned companies, the number of women is higher. But there were only 16.8% of female directors registered in all Swiss companies, including SMEs (Business-Monitor 2018)

But there are still 35% of companies that have no women on their Board (Schilling Report).

Considering the reality of working in a CA, what perspective can you give to young female students and future managers to make their wish of integration at all levels of a company heard?

The first question the students will encounter is how you work with a Board when you become CEO. How do you make the most of all the skills of the Board, without alienating it, because as CEO, you are appointed by the Board? Or for those who are going to create a company, it’s true that at some point, an Advisory Board may appear, and then perhaps the creation of the Board of Directors. So, how do we work with these variously competent people who are external to the company we have created? It’s another approach, but it’s also important to know.

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Until now, we have not talked about the level of the Council to students coming out of a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree because it is a second step in a career evolution. That said, it’s good to make them realize that this step is also available. But that for that, if they want to enter a Board of Directors, they must glean business skills, human experience, and company management experience to get to the Board level, the company’s governance, and supervisory body. 

The professional commitment at the Board level should not raise the question of men/women, because this will no longer be the discourse of the future. It is true that the members of the Boards, the current administrators, are afraid of feminist demands. We don’t want to have controversy within a Board. We want to have people who work in a collegial manner. We don’t want to make the discussion political. What is important is the legitimacy of the skills, acquired, working together, building together, listening. In any case, joining a Board is different from joining a company. When you join a company, you come to listen, but also to assert your ideas and proposals. You must make your mark. Ego still plays an important role. Even if we talk today about osmosis in the workplace, and the role of coach of an executive, he still has his place to play. On the other hand, in a Board when you receive the mandate, your place is assigned. The important thing is to show how you can quickly understand what others contribute, what the company is and wants to become, and how you can challenge the debates, the projects, the figures to better achieve this mission. So, to legitimize one’s career path, and one’s desire to sit on a Board, one really needs to strengthen or acquire soft skills to be able to work together, and to showcase one’s competencies that will shed new light on the other members of the Board (digital, HR, mergers and acquisitions, international development, etc.). But one does not come to a Board to give lessons. That’s outdated. It’s true that for young female students, you don’t come out of school to join a Board. To be able to sit on a board, you must be able to combine expertise, business skills, but also experience in business management, team management and project management.

Do women’s boards have super powers?

There are several statistics that show that diversity increases performance, but to me, even if I believe them, they are hardly credible. There are many factors that influence performance. External and internal, historical elements. It is difficult to say that it is the presence of women on the Board or even the composition of the Board that really influenced the performance of a given annual result. We know that some decisions take several years to bear fruit.

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On the other hand, the personality of the President influences the synergy and the identification of new recruits to complete and maximize the added value of the Board.

It’s business management within the business. It requires having the right people around the table. And then having people who spend time on their boards. Who come prepared to meetings. Who come with ideas. Who question decisions that are proposed to the Board. And then take responsibility. There are regularly cases that come out in the press that call into question the responsibilities of the Board of Directors. We wonder how something could have happened without the Board being aware of it. So, there is really a significant assumption of responsibility, and it is the role of the President to recall these responsibilities, to lead his Board. So, to answer the question. Superpowers, I don’t think it’s a gender issue, I don’t think it’s necessarily diversity alone that gives an answer, but it’s really the analysis of skill needs, the composition, the orchestration of sessions and decisions, the vision, the right choice of CEO, the right monitoring of compliance with the regulatory framework and the results and the curiosity of the Board that makes the right recipe.

What is the feedback from the women on the boards about their background or experiences?

All of them tell us that the first mandate in a Council is very difficult to obtain. Because getting through the Council’s door to apply is not like applying for a management position in a company. Getting that first term is done through networking. The networks in which you meet Board Chairmen or Directors are not at all the same as those in which you meet executives or clients. It is really a question of qualifying the networks so as not to lose image and energy, to obtain legitimacy and visibility of one’s skills through articles, public interventions and social networks. 

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Therefore, the Cercle organizes several round tables in which members of the Cercle participate. This is to present our concerns about the importance of good governance practices, but also to show the extent and quality of our members’ professional skills. If it is a fact that the first mandate is difficult to obtain. Then the other mandates are obtained through the network, because in general each director has more than one mandate. Once you are on a Board, and your skills are appreciated, the network opens other doors.

The other feedback is the question of whether it was difficult to get into the Council. I would say no, because women who are at this professional level know how to behave professionally, how to put forward their ideas, how to convince, it is part of their basic skills. 

I also heard a few comments related to the fact that newly hired administrators came well prepared but found that not all their counterparts were organized for the session. So, suddenly, there’s a little bit more rigor that comes from having one or two people who bring that input.

There are also other feedbacks, like: “we jumped into the cold water…”. This is quite rare for women, who are usually very cautious in their commitment and need to feel prepared and 100% capable of taking on the challenge. But these administrators say that they learned a lot on the job and that it was extremely motivating. There is a whole learning process. About the company, about the company’s activities, which are perhaps not the activities they had mastered until then. I am thinking, for example, of a director who was recruited solely for her financial skills and who was offered a position in a watchmaking company. This is an exciting discovery.

About yourself, you learn what you always learn as you progress through life, which is that you know nothing. The more you learn, the more you see the immensity of the ignorance and the skills that you can still acquire. So, it’s exciting, challenging and ongoing.

If your readers and students would like to see the reports of our female board members, they can consult the “Women Leaders” Portraits on,, which features a monthly interview with one of our members on her journey as a board member. There are interesting testimonials from various sectors. 

Le Cercle Suisse des Administratrices (CSDA) in short

The CSDA is a professional association, expert in governance and strategy, recognized and influential in the field of diversity and composition of boards of directors and foundations.

The CSDA is committed
– to make corporate governance evolve towards more diversity of profiles, modernity, respect for independence and the sustainability of all types of companies
– to encourage the sustainable success of companies, their responsibility in terms of ESG, according to the recommendations of good practices in corporate governance, issued by economiesuisse

The CSDA organizes thematic workshops related to Corporate Governance and numerous round tables and conferences. Its 250 members have carried out a Profile-Administrator Assessment in order to position their profile when seeking mandates.

The CSDA Prize is awarded each year to a company that is exemplary in terms of diversity on its Board of Directors and in its management positions. In 2021, the Helvetia Insurance Group, with its President Doris Russi-Schurter, has received this recognition.

Some data in figures 

Schilling Report:

Business Monitor – gender equality:

Interview by David Claivaz

Transcription originale en français