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7 Questions for Monika Bütler: “Unsolicited advice is the spam of life”

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About Monika Bütler

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Monika Bütler is an independent economist and Honorary Professor at the University of St. Gallen (HSG). Until January 2021, she was a Full Professor of Economics and Vice President of the University of St. Gallen. Born and raised in Windisch, Aargau, she grew up thinking she wanted to study medicine. After a change of heart, she studied mathematics and physics at the Universities of Bern and Zurich. Following her first professional positions at the Swiss Avalanche Institute and Swissair, Bütler decided to pursue her interest in economic topics and enrolled at the HSG to study business administration. She soon realized that she liked economics more and changed her major. After receiving her PhD at the University of St. Gallen in 1997, Bütler moved to the University of Tilburg (Netherlands) as an assistant professor and later to the University of Lausanne where she was promoted to a full professor rank in 2001. In 2004, she moved to the University of St. Gallen, where she was a Full Professor of Economics and Economic Policy and Director of the Swiss Institute for Empirical Economic Research (SEW), which she co-founded, until 2021. Her economic expertise lies in public policy and business economics. She is currently a member of the Board of Directors of Swiss Life (since 2022), Huber+Suhner AG (since 2014), and Schindler Holding AG (since 2013), in addition to other mandates.

1. Did you always know what you wanted to do professionally when you were a student, or did your career goals change over time ?

I am not a planner career-wise, and my professional goals kept changing. It was always important to me to do something interesting in my profession, but I didn’t really care where exactly I would work. I didn’t give it much thought, but I was always open enough when something came my way.

Of course, some people told me that my career had changed too much and that I was not focused enough. Later I was told that I was too old to pursue an academic career in economics and that I should go to a university of applied sciences instead. I have been told on several occasions that I was « not doing it right » with my career path, without even asking. Such unsolicited advice is something that women get to hear more often. But in such cases, I just stick to the saying that « unsolicited advice is the spam of life ».

Whenever I had to make a career choice, I had a lot of self-doubt initially. I hardly ever discussed these decisions with others; I first struggled with them myself. Once I made my decision, I stuck with it and didn’t look back, which certainly helped me. I still have self-doubt today, but less than when I was younger.

2. What do you like best about your job and what skills you learned at university do you use the most ?

I think a university degree helps you to break things down analytically, especially a degree in science, but also a degree in economics. You learn to recognize what the research question actually is, why you are asking it in the first place, what the possible answers might be, and most importantly, to consider whether things could be done differently. Economists are usually pretty good at this.

During my time on the Swiss Covid-19 Task Force, the ability to look at things from a different angle proved to be very useful. There are no simple solutions in a crisis, no single fix that can solve all of the problems. Moreover, another economic insight became very important during the pandemic: Individuals react to specific measures and adjust their behavior.

Doing a Ph.D. or even a master’s thesis makes you embark on a goal that may seem far away at first. The experience that you can succeed in such an endeavor is extremely important and satisfying.

3. What was your biggest success or your biggest failure that you learned the most from during your career ?

In retrospect I do not think that I had a major failure, but many small ones that felt big at first. In my twenties, I had strong doubts about ever getting my diploma in mathematics [editor’s note: today a master’s degree]. After my intermediate diploma [editor’s note: today a bachelor’s degree], I quit and was totally convinced that I’d never go back to university, so much had my studies become a burden despite very good grades. It wasn’t because of the professors, but because of the atmosphere among the students. My professors even tried to reverse my decision to quit. I had lost motivation and self-belief because I was not taken seriously in my field of study being the only woman in my class. But is this a failure? Probably not, it helped me to try out new things professionally and regain confidence. In the end, it bothered me that I didn’t have the master’s degree, so I had to get it!

4. Globally, women face underrepresentation in top academic and private sector roles, along with an average income and wealth inequality compared to men. What career advice would you give women ?

It is extremely important that women try to remain independent. I often feel that women hold themselves back, quite rationally, because there are more and higher hurdles for women in a professional career. Still, I consider it a major trap to limit your career ambitions to a study field that allegedly is compatible with a part-time job. If a woman (like a man!) studies what interests her most and what she is good at, chances are that this opens up better possibilities to combine family and career.

And secondly, I always advise women to demand something from their partners. I struggle with female academics who blame society for their own individual situation. It’s not society’s responsibility that your partner does his fair share in care work. Nobody would deny that it is still difficult to balance family and career. When my husband wanted to reduce his workload when the kids were small, many people did not understand why he wanted to work part-time, and his decision also had an impact on his career. But it’s exactly the same for women.

One experience that shaped my way of thinking is that it feels hard to be the primary earner in a couple, a role society usually assigns to men. I understand that many women are afraid of this responsibility. The data shows that even in couples where the woman earns more before they have children, it is usually the woman who works part-time after the birth of the first child. Moreover, couples seem to try to conform to the social norm of not earning more than their husbands. An interesting study carried out by two researchers from the University of Basel shows that women tend to underreport their earnings in surveys if they are earning more than their partners.

On the other hand, it also bothers me that discussions about female careers and the balance between family and work are dominated by an « evil » society narrative. But it is more complicated: social norms, personal decisions, and external constraints influence each other in all personal and professional interactions. Perhaps this is due to being part of a generation of women who had to fight hard to have their own career and to combine family and work. Of course, I would have preferred an easier way, but I also think that having to fight has helped me to see more clearly what I want.

5. What do you think the future holds for Switzerland as a business location ?

There are some things that Switzerland does very well. For example, Switzerland has inflation under control. Of course, we also have a strong currency, but the strong exchange rate is also related to the fact that we have low inflation. The relatively liberal labor market is also positive. The introduction of the 13th AHV pension and the inability to reform the social security, on the other hand, saddens me because it is at the expense of the younger generation. Intertemporal thinking is psychologically difficult because we haven’t needed it in the past.

It is also important that Switzerland finds a good and stable collaboration with the EU. But here, too, I would say not at any price. Sometimes it is better to wait and work hard on alternatives.

6. Does our economic system need to change so that the greatest challenge of our generation – climate change – can be contained and mitigated ?

We simply have to put a price on externalities with a CO2 tax. Most other “solutions”, including the claim to limit growth, are « wishful thinking ». There is no button to stop economic growth, especially not so well-off individuals do everything they can to improve their situation. I also do not consider central planning a good way to fight climate change. Throughout history, communist countries have polluted the environment much more. There is no system other than capitalism with its strong emphasis on entrepreneurship that could better cope with negative externalities.

Ideally, there should be international coordination in setting the right price to curb carbon emissions. In the medium term, however, even unilateral efforts by richer countries will pay off, as other countries will eventually catch up. There are many ways to compensate poorer countries. For example, to pay South American countries for protecting the Amazon from deforestation.

7. As a former student, what advice would you give to current students who are looking for their ideal job?

It’s worth making an effort in your studies. It’s an incredible privilege to be able to study, especially in Switzerland, where tuition fees are very low. You are more likely to be invited for an interview, even if you are not a perfect fit for the job if you have good degrees or a favorable recommendation from your instructors. Keep your eyes open at your own university to see what else interests you. In my experience, even in subjects where there aren’t many positions, dedicated students always find a job.

But what is an ideal job in the first place? Most students eventually go for another path than the one initially planned. Fortunately, the labor market is not like the marriage market. It is pretty forgiving when you try out different things, today even more than in the past. Starting a wrong job costs much less than ending up in the wrong relationship.

Again: show your commitment and interest. Participate in discussions and challenge your professors. The students I remember best are not always the ones with the best grades. An enthusiastic letter of recommendation from a lecturer is more useful than perfect grades.

Monika Bütler
Meret Staub
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