Swiss Central Bank Faces Crunch Talks on Work Culture Crisis

(Bloomberg) — Thomas Jordan’s biggest personnel crisis since the Swiss National Bank president took the helm eight years ago is about to come to a head.


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The central-bank chief has already been forced to defend his institution publicly over media reports claiming the work culture under his leadership discriminates against women. Now lawmakers are scrutinizing the matter, and Jordan is due to meet with his supervisory board — the Bank Council — on Monday to discuss the merit of the allegations.

“The SNB cannot afford such a blow to its reputation,” Susanne Vincenz-Stauffacher, a lawmaker for the pro-business Free Democrats, said in an interview. “It’s a wake-up call for the SNB’s Bank Council.”

A spokeswoman for the central bank declined to comment on the upcoming meeting.

The storm brewing behind the austere neo-Renaissance facade of the SNB’s 1920s-era headquarters in Zurich is an embarrassing distraction for one of the country’s most venerable institutions, at a time when monetary officials are trying to focus on helping Switzerland through its worst economic slump in a generation.

The furor began with a story published by news website Republik in September detailing bullying and pay discrimination endured by female employees. Other articles have since appeared there and elsewhere in Swiss media.

A dozen female lawmakers have tabled a motion in Parliament asking how the SNB intends to boost the tally of women in its management ranks, what it’s doing to prevent ill treatment, and whether it has an ombudsman to deal with complaints.

chart, bar chart: Slow Progress

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Slow Progress

The SNB hasn’t faced such a personnel controversy since the scandal that sealed Jordan’s promotion to the presidency in 2012, after his predecessor, Philipp Hildebrand, was forced to quit over a currency-trading scandal.

Republik’s allegations have touched a nerve at the SNB at a time of heightened awareness of the barriers women face, whether intentional or more subtle, within the economics profession.

A 2019 American Economic Association survey found that almost half of female economists experienced gender discrimination, including reports of assault and harassment.

The arrival of European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde as that institution’s first female leader in the neighboring euro zone has underscored the lack of such counterparts elsewhere. Her six-person Executive Board also broke new ground with the appointment of Isabel Schnabel, bringing its total of women to two for the first time.

By contrast, the SNB’s chiefs have only ever been male, and while the proportion of female managers there has increased, it still lags peers in the region.

The first woman to join the central bank’s three-person rate-setting council, Andrea Maechler, was appointed only in 2015. The ECB and Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee each had female policy makers around the time they were formed at the end of the 20th century.

Trust and Appreciation

The SNB’s work culture “is centered on trust and appreciation,” and the institution has a strong awareness of its social responsibility, its 2019 sustainability report says. Career progression is available for staff who work part-time, a status held by about half of women in senior management that year. For their male counterparts, the share was 9%.

Jordan already rebutted questions about a culture problem in September, saying bullying, sexism and discrimination of any kind aren’t tolerated at the SNB, and there is no systemic problem.

Officials are nevertheless looking into the allegations. The SNB’s Bank Council, which played a key role in the resignation of Hildebrand and the appointment of Maechler, is now studying the matter too.

While it hasn’t observed signs of ill treatment, “that doesn’t mean that we don’t take these charges seriously,” its president, Barbara Janom Steiner, said in an interview.

The Bank Council will also look into why there are fewer women in leadership roles at the SNB than at other central banks, and whether that’s just a reflection of Swiss society and the labor market or not, she said.

(Adds sustainability report in 14th paragraph)

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