International Women's Day - Celebrating Swiss Women

Topics covered

  • Ways to support women
  • The diverse contributions of women in Switzerland
  • Advice for parents of girls growing up in Switzerland

Who We're Speaking With

Today we are joined by the five authors of the brilliant book 50 Amazing Swiss Women. They are Laurie Theurer, Katie Hayoz, Anita Lehmann, Alnaaze Nathoo and Barbara Nigg.

About the Episode

Many Swiss history books mainly feature the contributions of men because historically, women in Switzerland didn’t have the same opportunities to contribute. For example, they only got the right to vote in 1971. Despite this, women have influenced the country in many ways — and continue to do so.

The authors share interesting insights from their research and the writing process:

  • Gender equality: Training courses focusing on diversity often don’t work since biases are subconscious. Measures like anonymous hiring practices are much more effective because they prevent biases from affecting results.
  • Encouraging women: Historically, role models have always been men. As a result, there are pictures of famous men everywhere, but few images of successful women from the past. This affects the self-image and performance of women at school, work, and in their personal lives. When we highlight women’s contributions, it becomes easier for a new generation of women to succeed.
  • Helping women: Many women who succeed in their fields have a good support system. It’s very hard to achieve your dream in a bubble, so a good mentor or advocate is important. In the past, that was often a father or husband. Nowadays, it could be anyone, from a parent to a teacher or friend.


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Well hello everybody and welcome to another episode of the Expert Guide to Your Life in Switzerland.

This is a series of conversations in which we speak with people who could be considered

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Alright, so today we are joined by the five authors of the brilliant book 50 Amazing Swiss Women.

They are Laurie Theurer, Katie Hayoz, Anita Lehmann, Alnaaze Nathoo and Barbara Nigg.

So as you may know, February 2021 marked the 50th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote in Switzerland.

This book celebrates the diverse accomplishments, struggles and strengths of Swiss women.

So ladies, thank you for joining us.

Thanks for having us. Thank you for having us.


All right, could we begin by saying how did this book come about?

I guess that's a question for me. I have to take you back in time to a previous

book that I wrote which is called Swisstory which is an enjoyable history of

Switzerland for kids. The book is 20 chapters and by the

time I got to about the 19th chapter I realized that most of the chapters were

exclusively about Swiss historical men and pointed that out to the publisher who very wisely said,

"Well, why don't we make the 20th chapter about Swiss women?" And I did exactly that, but I had

a word limit of about 2,000 words, which was not nearly enough. And so I mentioned to him that it

would be wonderful to have a book solely about amazing Swiss women. And he very wisely agreed to

that and 50 Amazing Swiss Women was born. You make it sound easy. Oh yes.

But he very wisely agreed to all your recommendations. Yes, he did. And it also helped that when I

realized that there was a very short amount of time until the 50th anniversary of Swiss Women's

right to vote. And not enough time for me to write it on my own. Four of my author friends very

wisely decided to join you when I asked them. Very wisely and very naively. That's right.

Well, let me ask you then, guys, what inspired you? What motivated each of you to take part in the

project? I can say what motivated me. I mean, first, all of Lori's begging. That really made a difference.

Women supporting women, Katie.

Yeah, women supporting women.

It's called making an offer you can't refuse.

Get the language right.

Now, let's remember this correctly.

I think the longest it took any of you

to agree to participate in writing this book

was about 10 minutes.



Might have been you, Katie.

I don't know.

Yeah, I might have been the 10-minute holdout.

I don't know.


No, for me, I was just--

I thought it was a great idea.

And I thought, you know, oh, that sounds like fun, you know, but I didn't realize I'd be so invested in it.

Once we got started, it was pretty astonishing to me how much it affected me.

And it really woke up, I would say it woke up a pride in me, a pride of being a woman,

pride of being a Swiss woman. And I was really proud of writing this book too, with all of my co-authors.

So, so yeah, apart from the begging, it was, you know, it was a cool idea.

That's why we couldn't have done it without you.

Exactly. I'm very glad I begged in that case.

I mean, for me, having grown up in Switzerland, without any real female role models, for me,

it was really the book that I would have liked to read when I was a child.

So let me tell you a little anecdote about this.

So when I was when I was little, we used to well, my parents used to have their

friends over and my father's friends are all pretty conservative kind of men.

And I used to get into arguments with them when I was sort of 12, 13, 14,

because I was like, hey, women should have to sign rights and should get paid

the same amount for the same work.

And, you know, I shouldn't be staying at home cooking all day every day.

And those men, this is this one guy who sort of looked at me and he said, well,

if women are so amazing, where is where are the female Beethoven's? Where is the female Mozart?

The female Goethe's and Schiller's and De La Rauw authors. And I didn't have an answer to that.

And it annoyed me to the state that I couldn't turn around and show it.

So this book is the answer.

This is your answer. And this is for me, it was a very, very strong motivation to write this book,

because I want my daughter and other Swiss children to grow up. I'm knowing that women have

contributed just as much as men to the history of the world and to bring that to light.

You're here. Actually, Anita, I think you've just answered the next question, which is,

in case there's anybody out there who might still be wondering, why would you say,

please in your own words it's important to highlight women's achievements.

I'll jump in on that because I was lucky enough so we each took 10 women to write about in the book

and one of the first women I got to speak to was Iris Bohnet and she is the director of

women and public policy at the University of Harbors and her story was about being the first

Swiss woman to be a professor at Harvard actually. And so when I, I knew a little bit about what

she was doing, she was working on unconscious gender bias. But when I spoke to her and I looked at

what she was doing, she was, she was, she was looking at how do you change people's behavior

and attitudes towards women in the workplace primarily. So, so yeah, so she found that,

that companies are spending billions and billions of dollars

on diversity training and trying to get people to change

the way they think about women

and women's role in the workplace.

And there was no evidence actually that it actually works.

So what they found is she actually,

she ran across a study done about an orchestra in the States

that was having difficulty with the constitution

the makeup of the orchestra, it was primarily men.

I think there were only 5% that were women,

and this is in the 70s.

And no matter how hard they tried,

they were having difficulty hiring more female musicians.

And it wasn't because there was a lack of female musicians

coming to auditions.

And they had spoken with the directors

and the musicians doing the hiring,

and they believed firmly that they had no bias,

that they were actually choosing the best musicians available.

So what they did to change the makeup of the orchestra

or to give more women opportunities

was they hung a curtain between the person

who was doing the hiring and the person

who was doing the auditioning.

And within a very short period of time,

the number of women in the orchestra jumped from 5% to 35%.

So what they found was trying to talk to somebody

about the way they do the hiring didn't work,

but making a simple environmental change did.

And so they also found that, for example,

in Harvard, at the University in the Hallways,

so the student body is about 50% women.

And yet all of the paintings down these hallways

are pictures of male leaders, historical figures,

and leaders, and businessmen who have succeeded.

There were no paintings at all of women.

So what they started to do is change the paintings

so that there were more women, so that the student body,

not just the women, saw that women were leaders,

but the male students see that that is the case.

And she recommends that they do that in boardrooms as well.

And change things like, for example,

when you're looking for a new employee,

instead of you take the names off of the applications

so they cannot see the janitor,

We cannot see the person's background, stuff like that.

So that's what she was looking at.

And when I talked to her, it struck me

that that's what this book was all about as well,

is that we were providing role models.

It's about offering children role models.

And that's why there are so many different types

of occupations and types of women from different backgrounds

and different dreams they have,

because we wanted to make sure

there was something for everybody in the book,

boys and girls so that if you were into sports you found an athlete, if you weren't a science,

you found a scientist, if you were into dance you found a dancer, whatever. There's all kinds of

occupations. So basically I think it's important because it provides kids with role models,

particularly with girls because as Anita said there were and I had the same experience as a

kid. There are no books, there are now and there are more now but there were none when I was a kid

about girls achieving anything.

And normalizing the presence of women.


On the walls at Harvard or in the orchestra and so on.

And it's just about seeing yourself reflected everywhere, right?

Like it's about, you know, whether seeing, however you say,

whether seeing is believing, representation matters.

It's seeing that somebody who is like you, that looks like you,

can go out and do these great things,

is going to then motivate the next generation to do even greater things.

But it's about just seeing that whoever you are,

you are reflected in history as having been able to do

some interesting things.

And it's not just the young boys or the men

that can do that.

- And it goes even beyond seeing someone

who looks like you doing things.

It also means seeing people that don't look like you

doing things.

So it's also for boys and men

because basically the more we're exposed to something,

the more we normalize it, right?

And so that's, we want to normalize seeing,

you know, strong women, women who fight for what

they believe in, women who fight society's expectations

or even women who fit into them for certain, you know,

certain, we want to normalize their spot in society

and how we see them.

- Yeah, it's about normalizing the range, isn't it?

is that boys can do 100 different things and that's fine,

but so can women, so can girls.

- Yeah.

- And it doesn't, you don't have to be

within a specific range.

You can't be, do stunts in Hollywood movies,

you can be an international superstar in tennis.

You can work on women's rights,

you can work on all sorts of things.

You don't have to be a nurse unless you want to be a nurse.

You don't have to be a stay-at-home mom

unless you want to be a stay-at-home mom.

There's other things.

- What's also interesting in that is that

She also found in a study that when you show women

a picture of a female leader that they know,

just an image before they go on stage

to give a presentation,

their presentation is rated much higher

than if they hadn't seen an image of that woman

or if they'd seen an image of a man beforehand.

So it does also have that impact.

When we see women succeeding,

when we see images of other women succeeding,

We take that information in and it affects

how we behave ourselves.

We see what is possible, I think.

Broadens our expectations of what's possible

and what we can achieve.

- Did you tell us what the creative process

was like for this book?

So how did you go about getting the information needed

about the women and how did you research it?

- It was a really interesting process

because as Lori mentioned,

we had a short amount of time to get this book out there,

which is why she brought us all in

to help her out to write these different chapters.

And we all had different styles.

- Very wisely.


- Yes, very wisely.

- Very wisely, 'cause we were all extremely lucky.


And we all have different writing styles and reach your styles.

And so, I mean, some of it was sort of online research,

some of it was interviews,

but there was some amazing benefits in working as a team.

And one of the greatest benefits was the fact

that we were able to share our work as we went along

and we were able to edit and improve each other's work

as we were going.

So you're writing a chapter about somebody.

You're not sure where to go.

You share what you have.

The others will look at it and add some comments.

Oh, maybe you should fix this here, add this here.

And it was through this teamwork that we could really

create these great chapters that we were able to produce.

And then the other thing, which was funny too,

is-- and I think I've mentioned this a few times before--

is how we all have our own sort of writing rhythms.

and I'm very much a night owl.

And the other writers were more human hours.

And so they would be commenting during the day.

And I'd sort of at two o'clock in the morning,

I'd start looking at comments

and commenting on everyone else's things.

But in the end, it actually kind of worked

'cause then when they got up, they had my comments.

Then when I was functional again, I'd get their comments.

And so it was just one of the things

that we don't often talk about in the creative process.

When you think about writers,

you think about this sort of solitary person

on a mountain top, discovering and writing things.

But one of the great joys of this book was writing it as a group

because we could help each other and become even more creative

and better writing and working with the illustrator

who's not with us today as well.

I mean, she was, I mean, I was just extraordinary

and she also added a lot to the process as well.

So I think that was really important

in terms of the creative process.

- You know, bear in mind that all of this was done

not only within an incredibly short amount of time.

I think we had three months to the day

to produce 50 chapters and critique them and have them ready.

So the book could be ready on time.


But then we're also working remotely from each other

during a pandemic with several--

I mean, everyone who participated knew me,

but they didn't necessarily know each other.

And I think even a couple of you haven't even

met in person yet.

And yet we were able to build this camaraderie

and produce this book an incredibly short amount of time.

- And the five of us have yet to be in a room together

at the same time.

- Exactly.

Unless it's a Zoom room.

- Yeah, exactly.


That we've done many times.

- And how did you whittle the list down to 50?

What were the criteria besides that there had to be women?

- Great difficulty.

- Yeah, yeah, it really was.

It was with great difficulty.

- Yeah, the more we looked, the more we found,

and it was incredible.

I mean, the number of women we would have liked to write about

is, yeah, incredible.

- Is there a sequel on "Horizon"?


- 50 more, that's amazing, Swiss women.

Well, let's see.

But in terms of criteria, I would say that,

the longer the list got, the more we realized

that Switzerland's been shaped by women of all kinds.

And, you know, if you just thinking of those of us in this Zoom room right now, we all

have strong ties to Switzerland.

Either we were born in Switzerland, we lived in Switzerland, you know, or we married to

someone who was Swiss, that there's, we all have strong ties to Switzerland.

So we also know that being a Swiss woman has different, can mean many different things.

So we wanted the book to reflect that.

So we had women who were born Swiss, women who became Swiss.

And we also wanted, like Barb had said earlier,

we wanted this book to reflect not only different women,

but also different interests for kids.

And we wanted kids to see themselves in here.

So we wanted women who did--

some women who were sporty, some who were into politics,

some who were scientists.

And we wanted them to be coming from,

maybe one from Geneva, someone else from Zug,

someone from the mountains.

So there were a lot of criteria.

And we had to really whittle it down based on

trying to get the most diverse set of people possible

in order to inspire the most readers.

- The really difficult part of that is that,

I came to these four with a list that I had already collated.

And as we started looking, all five of us,

for more amazing Swiss women

that we might wanna add to that list and select from,

it just kept growing and growing and growing.

And it's the concept of the more you look, the more you find.

and write down until the last weeks

of selecting who's going to be writing about which women,

we were still adding names to that list.

'Cause as Katie said, we wanted to ensure

a maximum amount of diversity

in the women we were going to be writing about.

And I think in the end, we had a list of names

that was reaching nearly 500.

I mean, it was a lot of potential women

and whittling that down to 50.

We did not choose the 50 best amazing women in Switzerland,

but rather the most diverse and the most interesting

that we wanted to present together as a group of 50.

- And the ones that we had information on.

- Exactly, the last, yeah.

- Because there were some of the historically women

who did some extraordinary things

that unfortunately you can only find one or two lines on.

Were those one or two lines that you found

was usually in the biography

about their husband or something like that.

so you couldn't find something about some of the great things

that they did.

And I think COVID played a real role in that, too,

because you couldn't go and spend four hours in a library.

In Lausanne, looking up research about this particular woman

who you found really interesting and bugged the librarian

about it, where then you can probably get more information.

But because the libraries were closed and whatnot,

you had to rely on either ordering books or seeing what

you could find online.

And so as Katie mentioned, we didn't

have all the information we would have liked

on some of these great, particularly historical women.

- There are historical women in there, of course,

but also modern day women, right, Alnard?

- Oh, absolutely.

I mean, we definitely balanced it out.

If we balanced out within the book,

you'll see that we've got women who are out there today

still doing great things.

And women who did great things hundreds of years ago.

I think my point was just more to the fact

that when we were trying to balance it out,

some of the information was missing on the historical ones,

while the modern ones, the ones that are still around today

great. Most of them we were able to interview. The really, really famous ones, not so much,

but there was a lot out there on them anyway. But the other ones we were able to contact and

they were, we were able to sit down and talk to them, at least on Zoom, if not face to face.

And are there any common threads or themes that you notice between these 50 women that have

inspired you? Well, when I first started doing the research, what popped out to me, which I

I didn't really think of before was that how important it was back then for women to have their fathers sponsor them or support them in some way.

So when a woman did achieve something 100 to 200 years ago, it was often because she had the support of her father.

One example is Angelica Kaufman.

She was a rock star in terms of being a portrait painter in the early 18th century.

She was world famous, but when she wanted to study art,

she couldn't go to art school

because women weren't allowed to art school.

Women weren't allowed to practice with live nude figures.

And when she did portraits,

so when she did take portraits of people,

she had to have her father in the room with her

the entire time, even as an adult.

So she was very restricted, but she was not the only one.

So for me, that was really something

that left an impression, definitely.

The other thing quickly is throughout all of them,

is that you really, you don't achieve your dream in a bubble.

You don't do it alone.

And it was sort of echoed in what we were doing,

because as I was researching these women

and talking to these women,

I found they all had a mentor of some kind,

or someone who believed in them and supported them.

And we had the same thing,

because I don't think that one person

would have been able to do this book at the time,

in the amount of time,

and we really worked together like Alness was saying.

- But I think, I remember Katie also had something really

that popped up for her.

Hey, don't wanna put you on the spot,

but I think you mentioned as well,

something that, a common theme where you ran into

a few women who didn't think they should be in the book.

- Oh yeah, I think several of us actually ran into

a few women who didn't think they should be in the book.

These are, these were the modern women

that we asked to interview and, you know,

we would approach them either via email or telephone

and say, explain the project and say,

we would like to interview for this project.

And a common response was, me, why me?

There's nothing special about me.

And when you ask the five of us,

yeah, there's something really special about this person.

So that was a common theme.

- I mean, we had women who didn't even respond

because they thought it was a joke.

I had somebody who didn't even respond

because she thought I was making,

that it was a joke, that it wasn't real.

And I had to go back many times

and say, no, you are extraordinary.

We want you in this book.

Everybody agrees.

Please sit down and talk to me,

and then you could get an interview.

But it's amazing how so many,

these extraordinary women are also somehow,

don't see what they're doing as extraordinary.

And it goes back again to the initial questions

of why is this book important,

and why is an important,

I like women's stories,

is because there are so many extraordinary women out there

doing these wonderful things,

and their stories do need to be told.

- Yeah.

And the other common thread I would say is that, yes, all of these women were supported

and they were believed in by someone, but they also believed in themselves enough to

persevere even when they came up against obstacles.

And well, this one is a little bit self-serving maybe, but I'm dead to two young girls growing up

in Switzerland. Is there a message that you would pass on to kind of lead them towards

the path to greatness? It's a bit of a big question there.

I mean, the first thing I think for me is that, you know, like we were talking about

when we were talking about the threads is the question of being supportive of their choices,

right? One of the things that we always saw is that when you had one of these women who said,

"I want to be a doctor. I want to be an artist. I want to be a stuntwoman."

the male figure was there saying, yes, I support you.

Yes, I will be there for you.

And it's not always the case with women.

You find women who are successful

despite the male figures versus because of.

But the because of is definitely a huge benefit, I think.

So I think as a Papa Bear, the first thing is like,

yes, I support you, let's do this.

- I think my advice for young girls would be to

take a really good look at what your strengths are, what things are you naturally good at.

If you're not maybe naturally good at something, maybe it just really interests you.

And to go ahead and find out more about that and seek new experiences and try to develop

that, find your passions.

And if you run up against obstacles as Katie was talking about, or even failures, don't

let it stop you.

Just follow your passion and know that these things are just trying to teach you something.

So pay attention to that and remember that success and greatness aren't defined by other people

or fathers or anybody else, but by you and what you're passionate about and what you believe is

important. I think that you asked the question, what can you say to young women? And I think,

and going back to what I learned with Iris Bohnet, it's not just what you say, it's what you do.

And she had an example where she gave a speech to her

gymnasium class at graduation and she actually complained about the education and said that

there wasn't enough critical thinking. It was all memorizing. And the chap who was in charge of the

school and for education for the Canton came over after she gave her presentation and told

that it was terrible that she did that. And her father came up and stood up and he said,

if my daughter says it's that way, it is that way. And she said that was a foundational moment for

her because he stood up for her and backed her. And I think if you have an opportunity to do that

for your daughters at some point, do do that. And the other thing I would recommend is read as much

as you can about women's experiences so that you understand what they're going through. I can recommend

some books, but this is an older book, but my husband read this when my daughter was a young

and adolescent. It's called "Reviving Ophelia, Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls" and it

really helped him understand the pressures that girls are under. I think that's really an important

thing to do. So it's not so much what you say as much as trying to understand what they're going

through and being there for them. Yes, and I would add to that the positive role models to me

are really, really important. It seems like, you know, I think it's pretty well understood,

you know, we talk a lot about systemic oppression and all that stuff, which is all true. However,

I think as an individual, it doesn't help you to think about yourself in that way. And or as,

you know, and therefore, I think, you know, our book is very purposefully done in a very

positive way. We're not talking about, oh, dear, look how we are all suffering. It's about look

and all the things we've done, or look at all the things that we're able to do and are capable of doing,

and all the achievements that we've made. And I think that is much more powerful in many ways,

and I think for an individual, for a girl growing up in the world, I think thinking of themselves

as somebody who can do things, rather than somebody who is being stopped from doing things, is much more helpful.

And helping, maybe sometimes also understand and read certain cues that they may not get.

I'm thinking of, for example, when I think of the Tilo Frey story, which is one that just sort

of transformed the way I think of myself in Switzerland as a woman of color. And one of the

things that her father gave her some advice on how to behave within the world that she was moving

into, you know, in Neuchâtel when she moved to Switzerland. And some of the advice that he gave

it was about navigating the world that you're in.

So she's a woman of color arriving to Switzerland

in the 20s, and the advice he gave her

was to act as white as a lily.

And so that sort of has a double meaning, doesn't it?

Number one is you have to be beyond reproach.

But number two is also blend into your environment.

Do we say that that's good advice today?

Not necessarily, obviously, right?

But back then, 1920s women of color in Switzerland, absolutely.

So one of the, and she mentioned it in her interviews, and that was a defining piece of advice for her,

and it helped her navigate to what was eventually a successful political and academic administrative career.

Was that advice that she was given? Because it helped her assimilate into the environment that she was living in.

So parents have to sometimes just help the girls, help the children navigate the world that they're in and understand certain cues.

So in my case, it's Tilo Frey, you know, or for somebody else, it's not something else, but

I think that's a very important thing as well. I think that's great advice, guys. Thank you.

And thank you again for joining us. It's been a real pleasure to speak with you.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for having us. Thank you.

All right, that'll do it for another episode. Thank you to listener for joining us. If you or

anyone you know of is looking for a role here in Switzerland, or if you're looking to hire,

let us know we'd be happy to help. The best way to do that would be to send an email to Alright, see you next time. Thanks.