Women Leaders Night 2024

In 2023, only 22% of top management positions in Swiss companies were held by women. In contrast, the proportion of female students at Swiss universities was 51.9% in the same year. This stark contrast illustrates that as women climb the career ladder, many drop out or are hindered in their advancement. Women leaders are still the exception in Switzerland.

A poster for women leaders night Description automatically generated On the 12th of March, the HEC Career Center organized the 5th edition of the “Women Leaders Night” to empower students to believe in themselves and unleash their full potential. Or as Marianne Schmid Mast, Dean of HEC Lausanne, put it: “Women leaders need to be normalized and this event is part of the process.”

This year’s panel consisted of the following five inspiring women who shared their career advice with the audience:

  • Alexandra Depoire comes from a family of auditors and has worked in the field for over 25 years. She has worked in several countries and regions, including Thailand, Myanmar, France, and Romania. She became a partner at KPMG at the age of 32. Today, Depoire is a Partner and Head of Audit Corporates Western Switzerland and is based in Geneva.
  • Nathalie Fontanet became a mother at the age of 20 and took care of her family until she was 34. With no prior education other than a high school diploma, she decided to study law at the University of Geneva, despite everyone telling her that she could not do it. After passing the bar exam, she worked at UBS until she entered politics. Today, Fontanet is a member of the State Council of the Canton of Geneva, where she is responsible for finance, human resources, and external affairs.
  • Pauline Granger started her career in marketing and communications in Paris, but soon learned that she did not like working in that field. She enjoyed her Erasmus exchange semester in Madrid so much that she moved back to Spain, where she joined an engineering consultancy as one of the only female managers. She then moved to the US and later to Zurich, where she is now Vice President Intelligent Industry at Capgemini Invent.
  • Miriam Thaler grew up in Brazil before moving to the UK to study business, a choice she made because she was unsure what to study. After graduating, still unsure what to do, she was inspired by her boyfriend’s application to apply for a graduate trainee program at HSBC Private Banking, where she ended up working for over 15 years. She is now Chief Investment Officer at Santander Private Banking in Geneva.
  • Karen Undritz has worked in the public, academic, and private sectors. After studying music and management, she began working in the diplomatic sector in Asia. She later worked in the academic sector at EPFL and the University of Neuchâtel. She then joined Credit Suisse, where she reviewed their offer for start-ups. Recently, she stepped down as Director at Y-PARC Swiss Technopole.

If you were unfortunately unable to attend the event (I highly recommend you be there next year!), here are the key pieces of advice that the female leaders shared with the audience:

1. Don’t limit yourself

Miriam Thaler emphasized that you should never set yourself limits, because the only person who can impose limits is you. Nathalie Fontanet also stressed that you have to be confident, otherwise others will not believe in you. She pointed out that this is very important in your first job: Women tend to apply for jobs only if they meet all the criteria, while men start applying for jobs much earlier. This is the first mistake you can make, so don’t limit yourself when thinking about what job or education is possible for you! And secondly, negotiate your first salary, never forget that a company is lucky to have you and therefore you do not have to accept the first salary you are offered!

2. Get out of your comfort zone

Alexandra Depoire emphasized that in order to grow, you have to leave your comfort zone. Working in Eastern Europe and Asia was a great challenge where she faced ups and downs, but these experiences ultimately made the biggest difference in her career. Miriam Thaler also advised the audience to take more risks and embrace new opportunities. Because women tend to take fewer risks than men, but where there are higher risks, there are usually higher rewards…

3. Ask questions and get feedback

Karin Undritz emphasized that you should ask for feedback from your superiors and colleagues because that is how you get better. Miriam Thaler and Nathalie Fontanet stressed that it is important to ask questions, especially at the beginning of your career. You will learn much more if you accept that you do not know everything.

4. It’s okay to change careers and make mistakes

Many speakers talked about the fact that you can always redirect your career: Pauline Granger was not happy in marketing and decided to change jobs, as was Nathalie Fontanet, who had the courage to start her studies and career in her mid-30s. In the same spirit, Miriam Thaler’s advice was to be less hard on yourself when you make mistakes. It’s okay to make mistakes, and that’s how you get better at your job!

5. Find allies

Surrounding yourself with people who support and help you is key. Marianne Schmid Mast pointed out that she would not have chosen an academic career if she had not had an inspiring female professor as a role model. Alexandra Depoire also emphasized that you should never be alone, but find both female and male allies in your profession. Miriam Thaler also pointed out that it is important to find sponsors in order to advance in your career.

6. Women have to work harder than men

Both Nathalie Fontanet and Miriam Thaler told the audience about their experience that, unfortunately, women have to work more than men to be taken seriously. As Nathalie Fontanet pointed out, when women arrive at their first job, many people assume that they will soon have children and will not focus on their careers. This is why you have to prove to them that you are competent. Miriam Thaler emphasized that being underestimated should be seen as an opportunity to surprise your colleagues and superiors positively.

7. Find a job that shares your values

Pauline Granger emphasized that the most important thing is to find an employer that shares your values. You should never put your professional career before your personal life, because you will always find a new job. It is better to listen to your gut when trying to decide what path to take in your professional life.

Meret Staub
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