GENEVA – GENEVA (AP) — Women were poised Tuesday to claim a majority of seats in Switzerland's Cabinet, less than four decades after the country became one of Europe's last to grant women the right to vote in national elections.
A four-three split in favor of women — an outcome predicted by many observers and favored in opinion polls — would make Switzerland only the fifth country in the world to have a female majority in government, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
"I think it's wonderful," said Anders B. Johnsson, secretary-general of Geneva-based IPU, which compiles an annual list of female participation in politics around the world. "When it comes to the executive, most countries drag their feet."
Switzerland's strong tradition of grass-roots democracy, with elected officials wielding significant power right down to the village level, has helped women rise rapidly through the political ranks since winning universal suffrage in 1971. Even national lawmakers work only part-time, making it easier for women to hold elected office and have a family or side job.
"It's definitely an advantage over countries where politics is a full-time profession," said Claudine Esseiva, a member of the Swiss Free Democratic Party. But with women still holding less than a third of seats in parliament, the strong female representation at the top is partly a confluence of unusual circumstances, she said.
Both houses of parliament are currently presided over by women, and Economics Minister Doris Leuthard holds the country's rotating presidency until the end of the year.
"You get a bit of a wrong picture if you just look at the government," said Esseiva, adding that eastern Switzerland is still a lot less friendly to women in politics than the French-speaking west. Appenzell Inner-Rhodes, a small canton (state) in the east, prevented women from voting in local elections until a supreme court decision in 1990.
Politics, others note, is also unrepresentative of women's role in other parts of Swiss society.
"Women gained the vote very late in Switzerland, but they've achieved a relatively high representation in politics," said Doris Aebi, a recruitment consultant in Zurich. "It's different in business, where Switzerland is still very much behind at the management level."
Few women number among the cadres of Swiss industry, and none of Switzerland's biggest companies have female chief executives. A recent list of top bankers — key figures in the Swiss national psyche — named only five women against 95 men.
"Particularly compared to the U.S. and Scandinavia there are far fewer high-level women in business," said Aebi.
Norway became the first country in 2002 to introduce a 40 percent female quota rule for listed and state-owned companies. Spain has since followed suit with quota requirements for female board representation and France has proposed a similar law.
According to IPU, Norway and Spain are also among the few countries in the world with a majority of women in Cabinet. The others are Finland and Cape Verde.
Dinah Zanetti, a campaigner for women's involvement in politics, pointed to what she called an "institutional lag" in Switzerland, where schools and universities often spread old-fashioned ideas about women's role in society that don't chime with young people's beliefs and aspirations.
Wednesday's Cabinet election was prompted by the resignation of Finance Minister Hans-Rudolf Merz and Transport Minister Moritz Leuenberger. Four of the six candidates to replace them are women, and a recent opinion poll showed strong support for Social Democrat lawmaker Simonetta Sommaruga to gain a place on the seven-member multiparty government.
Fellow candidate Johann Schneider-Ammann of the pro-business Free Democrats was second in the poll of 1,000 voters published Sunday in two Swiss weekly papers.
The Cabinet already has three female and two male members, representing five parties.
Its composition could change again next year, when all posts are up for re-election. Recent Swiss political history has pundits wary of making firm predictions for who will be returned in 2011.
"Women now have role models," said Esseiva, "but it's still a man's world."