A historic vote in the Swiss parliament on Wednesday resulted in the formation of an executive consisting of more female ministers than male, propelling the country to the forefront of sexual equality in politics just four decades after it granted women the vote.
The election of Simonetta Sommaruga, of the Social Democratic party, to the seven-member Swiss Federal Council means there are now four women and three men at the helm of the country’s political system.
Accepting her new role in French, Italian and German, Sommaruga said the government should work hard to further the rights of minorities.
“The majority must take into account all minorities, whether they be cultural, linguistic, religious, political or of any other kind,” she said.
Members of parliament, who had been engaged in the four-round vote since the early hours, applauded.
In a country which only gave women the vote in national elections in 1971 — and in which one canton blocked them from local votes until 1990 — the creation of the first female-dominated Federal Council has been greeted as a symbolic leap forward.
“I think it’s wonderful,” Anders Johnsson, secretary general of the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) said. “When it comes to the executive, most countries drag their feet.”
Before the vote, Social Democrats Chairman Christian Levrat said a majority female government would be an “essential, decisive step.”
The move sees Switzerland join Finland as a country with a female-majority government. Of the 20 ministers in the Finnish Cabinet, 11 are women, including Prime Minister Mari Kiviniemi. Finnish President Tarja Halonen is also a woman. Countries such as Spain and Norway also have strong female representation in senior government posts.
In the multiparty Swiss Cabinet, 50-year-old Sommaruga will join Federal Council President and Economics Minister Doris Leuthard, Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey and Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, along with their three male colleagues — Johann Schneider-Ammann, Didier Burkhalter and Ueli Maurer.
Sommaruga’s election was prompted by the resignation of the Moritz Leuenberger as transport minister.
Observers said Switzerland’s rapid propulsion of women to top jobs in politics has been caused at least in part by its commitment to grassroots activism and to flexible working hours. Even some of the most powerful parliamentarians work part-time, meaning that women with families can more easily hold elected office.
However, many said the vision of sexual equality in the executive gives a misleading impression of Swiss advances. Women are still outnumbered three to one in parliament, while few have made it to the top of the business world.
“Particularly compared with the US and Scandinavia there are far fewer high-level women in business,” said Doris Aebi, a recruitment consultant in Zurich.
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