A gentle rustling can be heard as the tablets fall into the packaging, the odour of medicines hangs in the air and an occasional breeze wafts through the open windows. It’s 1926, and women wearing serious expressions and white coats and hoods work side by side in a Roche Basel packaging room. Industrialisation is turning more and more women into workers; their husbands’ salaries are no longer sufficient to feed their families.
According to Lionel Loew, from the Roche Basel/Kaiseraugst Historical Archive: "Women have been working at Roche since the company was founded in 1896, mostly in production, packaging or as secretaries." At the time, these positions were as far as a woman could advance in the company. Not even a university degree, rare for women in those days, could improve their lot in the job market. Although unimaginable today, this is how things were – not only at Roche in Switzerland, but throughout Europe.
So, it is surprising that, even back in the 1920s and 1930s, there were women at Roche who did not match any of the classic occupational profiles. But they had a champion in the company leader Emil C. Barell. With his support, some were able to follow unconventional paths. In 1926, Emil posted one of these women, Alice Keller – who held a doctorate in economics – to Japan. In Tokyo, she handled product launches and correspondence with Basel. In 1929, she was the first woman to be awarded the title of Direktorin at Roche, a sensational development at the time.
From the 1940s to the 1980s, progress for women at Roche was slow. The professional world was dominated by men, and the topic of gender equality was hardly an issue of public debate in conservative Switzerland. At the beginning of the 1990s, this changed at Roche with the creation of an office for equal opportunities, which was led by Etiennette Verrey. One of her greatest achievements was a day-care centre for the children of employees.
Just a few decades ago, the reality of what women could achieve in the workplace was very different than it is now. Fortunately, there were women like Anny Schwarz, Hilde Pfaltz and Erika Böhni. They held their ground and helped pave the way towards equality.
In 1923, Anny Schwarz was a young woman desperately searching for a job. Like many people in the wake of the First World War, her parents were in dire financial straits and dependent on their daughter’s income. Luckily, Anny’s father had a friend, Dr R. Boehringer, who worked at Roche in Basel. He put in a good word for the young woman with Emil C. Barell, who was heading the company at the time. And so Anny Schwarz, who was about to take her doctoral examination in economics, was hired by Roche as a secretary.
35 years later, Anny had risen to the position of Deputy Director of the Purchasing Department. In a 1987 interview, she commented on her time with Roche: "They say that where there’s a will, there’s a way – and where the practicalities of the wartime economy were concerned, there certainly was. In Roche operations and purchasing, the word ‘impossible’ was not part of our vocabulary." Given the circumstances of the time, her rise was meteoric. Anny Schwarz is one of those people who made the impossible possible.
On 1 April 1929, confident yet with uncertain steps, Hilde Pfaltz, 36, embarked on her first day as a laboratory technician with Roche in Basel. She already sensed that she would not have it easy in her job. In a 1987 interview, she described how, in the period between the two world wars, it was frowned upon for a woman with a child and an academic background to go to work. This was even true for a woman in her circumstances: a young widow raising a small boy on her own.
But Hilde would not let that hold her back. She worked tirelessly and by the time she retired in 1956, the situation for women at work had improved. Her perseverance still looks impressive today.
After giving a lecture at a medical conference in the US in 1969, Erika Böhni writes in her diary: "The lectures given by the two men before me were both very undistinguished. My lecture, in simple words and new images, was explosive. Everyone was pleased. Women told me in the women’s lavatory that they’d understood every word."
Erika Böhni was not short of self-confidence. And rightly so – she played a key role in the development of the chemotherapeutic agent Bactrim and the broadband antibiotic Rocephin. These medicines combined have benefited many hundreds of millions of people, and are still on the WHO Model List of Essential Medicines.
In 1987 she said this of her 33 years with Roche: "The high point was my research and development work on every aspect of the chemotherapeutic agent Bactrim. The mutually potentiating effect of the two active-ingredient components trimethoprim and sulfamethoxazole was something new and sensational at the time. People thought ‘Böhni's gone crazy’. Until other bacteriologists confirmed it. It was a fantastic, exciting time."
In 2020, the
At Roche, the topic of gender equality has gained more momentum since the early 2000s. One element for making progress is flexible working. It creates better conditions for balancing the demands of family and career for both women and men. Examples include part-time work, working from home, and job sharing.
Although we’ve come a long way, we are committed to improving diversity and inclusion in the workplace. As a company and a society, we cannot close the book just yet. Women still face challenges in the workplace. Reconciling family and career, discrimination in the workplace, equal pay and the proportion of women in senior positions remain an important topic. How do women deal with these challenges at Roche?
"I’m fortunate to have a husband who has given up his job to look after our five children. Also, Roche lets me do much of my work from home – without the option of flexible working I couldn’t possibly do my job full-time.
I believe mothers and fathers are equally valuable, so if my husband takes care of the children I don’t think they’re missing anything. Deciding to work a full-time job obviously has consequences. But for me it’s about my children being happy. If their mother isn’t, they can’t be either. And achieving success in my professional life makes me happy."
“It took me a few years of trial and error to figure out what work and family life balance meant. However, you have choices in your life and I have chosen to make it all the way to succeed at work and back home. My passion is to make people feel happy, change their lives and have a positive impact - and communications in diagnostics is a field where you can do this by sharing awareness and by connecting. With this belief and passion, I know that every day I wake up, there is one good change that is waiting for me to tackle and one wish to make come true, which is to be that great inspiration for my kids just like my mother was - and still - is for me!”
Roche has committed to supporting the UN’s sustainable development targets. In pursuit of target number five, "Gender Equality", the proportion of women in key leadership positions at Roche has been steadily increasing – from 13% in 2009 to 32% in 2019.
"Gender equality is especially close to my heart... Growing up in India (a long time ago!), ‘the plan’ was for me to have an arranged marriage by age 20, and take care of my husband and children. Instead here I am in Basel... having lived in four different continents! I am very grateful to my parents for believing that I could be anything that I wanted to be, and to Roche for giving me the opportunities to learn and grow. I firmly believe that every person should be given the opportunity to be and perform at their fullest potential!”
Another factor that will move closer and closer to centre stage in the future is working part-time. Family models in which both parents reduce the workload are still the exception in Europe. In its latest report from the year 2016, the Swiss Federal Statistical Office had this to say: "Part-time working is very uncommon among fathers in Europe. Only 5.7% of working fathers in the EU with children under six work part-time, and the figure exceeds 10% only in Switzerland (15.3%) and the Netherlands (14.3%)." (Source: -
But women and men in Generation Y and among digital natives are noticeably more self-confident, and this could lead to the "burden" of reconciling family and career being more widely shared.
To make change possible, the prevailing legal, political and social conditions must be right. As we know from history, the role of women in the workplace develops in parallel to society. The Gender Gap Report makes it clear that much remains to be done in this area.
"I admire women who continue working when they have a child, and women who deliberately decide not to have children and to concentrate entirely on their careers. Personally, I’d like to have a family one day and continue working. I invested heavily in my education, and I enjoy my job – so it would be great if my future husband worked part-time as well."
"When my wife got pregnant, I knew I definitely wanted to reduce my workload as soon as our child was born. The classic model, in which the father leaves the house early in the morning and comes back late at night, isn’t for me. So, I talked to my boss, and we agreed that I’d cut my workload to 80 percent for 15 months. I appreciate the fact that people at work were so understanding – not only my line manager, but my team as well. It was definitely the right decision."
Gender equality is strongly supported through mentoring, sponsorship and development opportunities. There are also an increasing number of professional women’s networks across the company, providing a platform to share experiences. Importantly, we have concrete goals to increase the proportion of women in senior positions. Today women represent 49% of the total workforce at Roche. In management 43.6% are women.
“By ensuring that we include people with various backgrounds, experiences, skills and perspectives, we can innovate, thrive and contribute to a successful future. Gender equality is an important part of our inclusive approach and ultimately means we all have the same chance to succeed. I am proud of the countless opportunities women have at Roche today, and our vision to unlock the potential of all our people,” says Cris Wilbur, Chief People Officer at Roche.
Fuelling that ambition are global goals, programmes and governance as well as local action plans in more than 70 countries around the world.
Global Gender Gap Report 2020:
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