Doing Business in Europe – A Female Perspective

After growing up in Europe, but having spent the vast majority of my working career in North America, it was very interesting to return and consider doing business in Europe. This is particularly true after experiencing the very different cultures of Brazil and India. Despite some minor differences, the business environments of Switzerland and Hungary are far closer to North America than those of Brazil and India. As someone considering working in Europe again, what had most interest to me was looking at whether the “old continent” has a progressive, forward looking attitude to business or whether organizations were looking to the past and tied up with old-fashioned notions. I am going to look at Doing Business in Europe as a woman.

First perceptions are always important and some of the company visits gave an interesting insight into European attitudes to female employees. At Julius Baer, Borris Collardi introduced all the male members of his staff to the class, but didn’t introduce the only female staff member; we saw the same thing with Holcim. It is possible that this was because the female staff members were less senior, and so it was felt an introduction wouldn’t be useful for us, but it was interesting as this wouldn’t happen in North America. Was this an example of cultural efficiency, or an example of a different perception of women? The other event that stuck out was when Klaus Wellershoff assumed that the women in the class wouldn’t know who Michael Schumacher was; perhaps it’s just more honest than a North American would be, but it was surprising.

However, it should be noted that at no point in any of our studies or site visits did it seem that the women in the class were not treated with respect or that our contributions were not valued or taken seriously. When I did a survey of the European women in the class none of them felt that they were disadvantaged by being a woman, and at some of the companies they worked for there were strong policies in place which empowered women to succeed.

While perceptions are interesting, it is not enough just to rely on them to make a judgment. Of the presenters, only two recruiters were female and none of the employees that we interacted with at the company visits were women in positions of power so it is not possible to judge how women are treated in European business. The industries we were looking at in Europe are also traditionally male dominated industries: concrete, banking, power tools, so it is not possible to extrapolate to the economy as a whole. I decided to do a little more research as to the situation of women in Switzerland and Hungary.

Switzerland is famous for being one of the last countries to give women the right to vote, in 1971. Our Swiss colleagues gave us further insight into this, explaining how some of the cantons did not want to give women the vote at all and had to be forced to by the federal government. Hungary gave women the right to vote in 1918, however this doesn’t mean that women have achieved more equality than their peers in Switzerland. Both countries have legislation in place concerning the equality of men and women (EIU Country Commerce Reports Switzerland and Hungary). However, Switzerland still continues to experience sexual discrimination despite a 1996 law on sexual equality, according to the EIU Country Commerce Report (EIU Country Commerce Report Switzerland, 2008), with women being paid less than men; on average women earn 37% less than men (Hausmann, Tyson, & Zahidi, 2008). According to Swisster, the UN is raising concerns over the status of women’s rights in Switzerland: the UN notes that as the home to many multinational humanitarian organizations, it is important for Switzerland to act as a role model (Berry, 2009). In Hungary, women are paid 36% less than men, according to the World Economic Forum (Hausmann, Tyson, & Zahidi, 2008).

It is interesting to compare this with Brazil and India, both of which are traditionally considered very macho countries. In India as a group we met more Indian women in positions of responsibility, as the area of offshore outsourcing is growing so fast there is a need to take on both women and men. There were many women working at both GE Money and at iGate, however this perception did not really take into account that for many women in India working after having children is extremely difficult and is generally not done. Women in India make, on average 69% less than men (Hausmann, Tyson, & Zahidi, 2008), this is substantially worse than in either of the European countries. Brazil is another country with very traditional values and in general women have less opportunity in terms of their careers than men, however we did get to meet with successful, career women, such as Paola Tucunduva. Women in Brazil are on average paid 42% less than men (Hausmann, Tyson, & Zahidi, 2008).

To compare Europe with North America is challenging; it may be perceived in North America there are fewer sexist comments, this could be just because North Americans are less frank than Europeans not because attitudes are different. Having worked in both male and female dominated industries, I have personally always only seen a positive, accepting attitude to women in business. From a more tangible point of view, women in Canada make 36% less than men (Hausmann, Tyson, & Zahidi, 2008), which is only slightly better than Switzerland and the same as Hungary.

A more theoretical evaluation of the status of women in Europe compared to North America and the other countries we have visited presents a more complicated situation. The World Economic Forum produces an annual ‘global Gender Gap Report’ which is “a framework for capturing the magnitude and scope of [gender] disparities and tracking their progress” (Hausmann, Tyson, & Zahidi, 2008). This report shows Switzerland as occupying 14th place of 130 countries in terms of inequalities of men and women. Switzerland has made significant improvements in the last few years, rising 26 places in the last year. As can be seen from the table below the big European countries were rated significantly better than those of the USA and Canada.

Economic Participation and Opportunity Educational Attainment Health and Survival Political Empowerment
Country 2008 rank 2008 score Rank Score Rank Score Rank Score Rank Score
Germany 11 0.7394 45 0.6877 49 0.9954 57 0.9783 16 0.2962
UK 13 0.7366 42 0.6918 1 1.0000 69 0.9745 21 0.2801
Switzerland 14 0.7360 54 0.6631 88 0.9751 56 0.9784 11 0.3273
France 15 0.7341 53 0.6631 1 1.0000 1 0.9796 18 0.2939
USA 27 0.7179 12 0.7524 1 1.0000 37 0.9795 56 0.1398
Canada 31 0.7136 15 0.7441 37 0.9977 57 0.9783 60 0.1343
China 57 0.6878 43 0.6915 87 0.9778 126 0.9410 54 0.1408
Hungary 60 0.6867 50 0.6687 64 0.9928 38 0.9791 77 0.1061
Brazil 73 0.6737 59 0.6526 1 1.0000 1 0.9796 110 0.0625
India 113 0.6060 125 0.3990 116 0.8452 128 0.9315 25 0.2484

Table 1

However within the overall good performance of the European countries when one looks at the specifics of the ‘Economic Participation and Opportunity’ category, which would be the category of most interest to young professionals deciding where to develop their career, it is clear to see that Europe does not do as well. This category assesses female participation in the workforce, wage equality and what percentage of senior or skilled positions are held by women. While the USA and Canada are ranked 12 and 15 in this category, Germany and the UK are ranked in the forties along with China, while Switzerland and France are ranked lower, in the fifties, along with Hungary and Brazil. So while political empowerment is much stronger in Europe, which is a good thing because it should drive change, the economic gap is significant.


Overall, it is hard to fully evaluate doing business in Europe from a visit and high level studies. There are clearly differences in attitude between North America and Europe in terms of business interaction between men and women, however it is not possible to say that the European attitude is backward while the North American one is not. There is nothing I have experienced about doing business in Europe which would not make me want to work there. Data does seem to suggest that Europe has less inequality than North America for women as a whole, taking into account all aspects of life. At this specific time in my life, when I am most concerned with career progression, it is the economic development factor which is most important to me, for this reason it is less likely I would consider moving to Europe because the differences in economic performance between women and men are so pronounced. It is important to remember that for a country to remain competitive it must ensure it is using all the resources at its disposal to maximum effect. Women make up 50% of the population and to under develop this source of talent would reduce Europe’s ability to be as competitive as possible. This does not just apply to a comparison with North America, data suggests that Europe is functioning on the same levels as China and Brazil in terms of equality. As China and Brazil develop, being able to effectively leverage this part of the population potentially constitutes a competitive advantage, should Europe continue to neglect it.


Berry, M. (2009, July 29). Swisster Society . Retrieved August 23, 2009, from Swisster:

(2008). EIU Country Commerce Report Switzerland. New York: Economist Intelligence Unit.

Hausmann, R., Tyson, L. D., & Zahidi, S. (2008). The Global Gender Gap Report. Geneva: World Economic Forum.


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