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How Swiss women working in multilateral organisations integrate family and career: 8 personal stories

Building a multilateral career as a Swiss woman takes flexibility, creativity, and sacrifice – both on her part and on her family’s part. Family takes many different shapes and forms; less traditional forms are not always recognised as family, leading to societal judgment and a lack of organisational support. At a recent community get-together focusing on the topic of family and career, members of WomIN+ exchanged their experiences, choices, and challenges.

Illustration of two women on a balancing board; one is carrying a business folder and the other is holding a child in her arms.

This article summarises the discussion among WomIN+ members and portrays a small selection of women and their experiences. To protect the women’s privacy, we have altered some of the personal details in each portrait. Of course, it cannot represent the vast diversity of gender and family identities found among the multilateral community. Nevertheless, it reflects some of the paths women have taken to thrive in both their professional and personal lives – integrating career and family priorities with compromise and passion. 

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The opportunity of being a single mother

My family is my two young children. I am a single mother by choice and have worked in humanitarian settings for the past eight years. I’m very content with my decision to have children as a single mother. Working and living in Africa has given me this opportunity, which I think many women in Switzerland cannot afford, financially or culturally. In my current family duty station, the privilege of having two nannies allows me to assume my leadership responsibilities at work while spending lots of time with my children at home, all without the judgment I often experience in Switzerland. In contrast, I have largely been met with openness and acceptance from people abroad. 

My life choices are none of other people’s business, and I no longer feel the need to explain.

Pregnancy as a project

My family is my husband, our two children, 8 and 12 years old, and my stepson. Early on in my career, I did not think I wanted children. This changed unexpectedly when, in my late 30s, I met my husband and his son. But we had trouble getting pregnant. The medical treatment and support I resorted to were personally stressful, not only because my husband and I were not in the same duty station but also because I was constantly getting nosy questions about why I didn’t want children. Fortunately, I finally had my son at 38 and my daughter at 42. This was only possible when I started applying as much energy and dedication to my personal as I did to my professional life: pregnancy needed to become a project. While my husband and I have made career compromises to stay in the same location over the past 20 years, we continue to deal with uncertainties as I am about to move to a new position on a different continent.

Invest in your relationship as much as you invest in your career.

The choice not to have children – institutional expectations and societal perceptions

My family extends beyond the realm of genetic bonds. I love community, and working at headquarters has allowed me to grow a strong circle of friends. I spent Covid-19 living with my brother’s two children. I see my partner, who lives in East Africa, every two months. I don’t wish to have children of my own, and not being a mother put me at odds with the societal norms of some cultural contexts I worked in previously. I tended to be taken less seriously and treated like a child. At the same time, I feel that my institutional environment expects me to constantly put my needs aside in favour of my colleagues, who are parents: I take the morning and night calls, and my employer often moves me around without much consideration. It’s time for organisations to adapt their staff policies to a more contemporary definition of family.

As a woman without children, my organisation expects me to constantly put my needs behind those of my colleagues.

Time spent apart; time spent prioritising the relationship

My family is my partner. Early in our 11-year relationship, we chose to live apart; this gave us confidence. While I was in a hardship duty station and he was doing his PhD in life sciences, we went on several honeymoons thanks to my frequent rest and recuperation. I also enjoyed having time for myself.

At a certain point, we wanted to be in the same place, so we decided to go wherever one of us found a job. We are now happily living in Jakarta, where I am fortunate enough to develop my UN career. Having left a good job in Switzerland, my partner randomly found a new position at a university here. Thanks to my UN salary, we can prioritise our relationship over his career. At the same time, I am well aware of his sacrifice regarding his research aspirations and income. 

It’s ok to choose to be apart – it doesn’t mean we love each other less, whatever others may think or say.

Consultancies, financial dependency, family happiness

My family is my husband, our 5-year-old boy, and our newborn baby girl who arrived a few weeks ago. I am on unpaid maternity leave in Switzerland, and my husband has just taken up his P4 reassignment in Pakistan. I am currently living on his salary and my personal savings. The financial dependency and instability resulting from my consultancy contracts worry me. At the same time, my decision to follow my husband’s career has given me the opportunity to work in various places and build a solid interagency skillset with increasing levels of responsibility. 

Reconciling children and a UN career has not always been easy. When my son was born, I lost the opportunity to extend a TA P3 contract in an emergency operation, as I was unable to pre-commit to returning with a newborn. During my second pregnancy, knowing that my husband would be due for rotation soon, I felt that my family needed me during that unstable and busy time. Today, I feel grateful and fulfilled about the family we have become. We have started to explore ways that I can take the lead in the coming decade.

Having children still has a negative impact on our career stability, though the experience and skills we obtain from raising them are actually huge positives.

Quitting his job to follow me

My family is my boyfriend. We were only together for a few months when I decided to seize a new UN opportunity in Latin America. He gave up his finance job in London to follow me, and he is now due to start a Masters online. What disappointed me were the judgmental reactions from many of my friends and relatives, suggesting that he was "not a strong man". 

A man who follows a woman is a strong man.

Children’s strong bonds with their father and grandmother

My family is my husband, our two children, and my mother-in-law. I became pregnant while working in a non-family duty station, returning to my assignment after giving birth. This drew plenty of criticism in Switzerland. In addition to their father, my mother-in-law and two nannies were always there for the children, and my rest and recuperation allowed me to regularly spend two weeks full-time with them. It is beautiful to see how close they have grown to their father and grandmother.

Our society still has a long way to go in terms of eliminating gender bias. When the man goes abroad, he’s hailed a hero for landing a job. When the woman goes, she’s criticised for being irresponsible.

Alternating careers and caring for parents

My family is my husband. We found dual career satisfaction by alternating who followed who, like ping-pong – always managing to be in the same place. We studied different majors at the same university. When he got his first UN assignment abroad, I followed him and volunteered with an NGO. Then we switched: when I received a job offer from a UN agency on another continent, he followed me and found a consultancy. A few years ago, my father-in-law’s deteriorating health led us to move back to Switzerland. We are glad that we chose to do this, as he sadly passed away. Though we are lucky to have multilateral positions in Geneva, we are keen to move back abroad once this becomes possible, family-wise.

It is worth prioritising the care needs of our family members. The time we have together in this life is limited.