Up the career ladder: Q&A with Schellenberg Wittmer's Caroline Clemetson

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Caroline Clemetson was the first woman to get onto the managing committee of a major law firm in Switzerland, here she discusses how she broke the glass ceiling in the Swiss legal sector

Caroline Clemetson is a partner in the banking and finance department at Swiss firm Schellenberg Wittmer and a member of the firm's management committee. She heads the Investment Management Practice and her core focus is on banking and finance law. She began her traineeship in 2001, passed the bar in 2003 and then travelled to the US to study her masters at Columbia Law School. Upon her return, she decided to specialise and work for Switzerland’s financial supervisory authority, the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority (FINMA). She developed her career at the regulator before joining Schellenberg Wittmer, and in 2019 became the first woman to reach the management committee at a big Swiss law firm.

Looking back on this experience, Caroline Clemetson tells IFLR about the challenges of breaking the glass ceiling in Switzerland and her hope for a generational shift in attitudes enabling more women in the country to reach partner level.       

We could have spoken about a number of things today but we will focus on transitioning up the career ladder, what is it about this topic that interests you specifically?

Switzerland is unfortunately still a very conservative society. Women here have access to the same jobs as men, but when it comes to climbing the ladder it’s much harder for women. The problem is that the most important career progression usually happens between 30 and 40 and many people who want a family have to wait until they are in their 30s or 40s. Once you become a mother, misconceptions towards family in Switzerland can really slow or even halt career progression during the most important years.

Things really need to improve. There are more women than men entering the legal profession nowadays but at partner level, the balance is still tipped the other way even if there is progress. In the average law firm, women represent 60% of the associates but this percentage drops to 20% at best for partners and can be as low as 1-2%.

In the face of that, you’ve made it to the managing committee at Schellenberg Wittmer. What do you think made the difference for you?

What really made a difference was probably that I specialised in a management position at the financial authority before joining Schellenberg Wittmer and that the firm is quite progressive and has the clear goal to help any woman to get into C-level positions.

Regardless of the position in the management committee, having a management position at FINMA and then being a partner in a large law firm requires a lot of work. It is hard, my kids would tell you they didn't see me much because I worked quite a lot. But I love my job and of course it helps that I am really passionate about what I do.

If I were a man, however, you probably wouldn’t expect me to mention not seeing my kids so much and that’s exactly the problem. With the new generation however, we see this changing because men have more of a role at home, which will clearly help in closing the gender gap.

What can be done to improve this?

Society needs to improve. First of all, accepting the fact that, yes, women have children but men also have children and can take care of them too.

It’s not easy to have a family life and a career at the same time, but there is no need to feel guilty about that. Society is evolving to accept that men can also work part-time to look after the family.

Is the C-suite something you can ever be ready for?

I'm not sure you can ever be ready for it. If you've never been in that position before, how do you know you can do it unless you try it and gain experience? All you can do is work hard and if you have doubts, get some coaching. You’ll make some mistakes, but when you fall down, you get up again.

What are the main skills you need to push through the glass ceiling?

Leadership, competence, and confidence.

You might not always make the right decisions, that's okay. People must be able to trust you and you need to give people confidence that you have it under control, because in any circumstances you need to have it under control.

What's your advice for women who want to break through the glass ceiling?

Believe in yourself and be self-confident. Women often have more doubts than men so it is important to believe you can achieve your goals. Make sure you know what your values are and keep them in mind.

Specialise and make sure you are competent because the tolerance threshold is much lower for women than it is for men. Hopefully things will change, but for the time being, believe in yourself and work hard.

How important are support systems for women building their careers?

You hear a lot that women are against women. This is not true at all. When women get to high-up positions, they're always going to help each other. The relationship between two women in the C-position is amazing because they both had to struggle to get there.

Women that reach those positions tend to get along because we know the cost and we know what it means to be there and have a very success oriented approach.

How do you help other women up the ladder?

At the firm we've asked ourselves that question and we think we’ve found a good solution. We created a peak talent coaching programme for early-career lawyers who we think have a lot of potential. Participants get coaching on how to position themselves, how to work and how to manage an environment that would enable them to become partners and rise up the ladder.

We always have to get behind the people that we think have a good potential. Some people are scared, which is normal, but give them feedback, trust, confidence, client contacts and help them position themselves to succeed and they will. We regularly elect women as partner and many more are on the partner track. It works not only for women but also for men. This process is creating male lawyers accustomed to female counterparts climbing the ladder next to them.

Giving women that extra confidence boost at the beginning of their careers is so important in helping them realise what they can achieve. Women need to think ‘I can do this because my employer and my partner will help me achieve my goals.’ That is so important.

Things are changing, you can see different attitudes in the younger generations. I hope that comes with a societal shift to help more women climb up the ladder and reach the C-suite.

 

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