Discussion Held

The other day one of my professors read a piece from a fiction book, supposedly written by a man, in which a female employee laments that all men in her organisation are sexist pigs who will never change. He read it out simply to make us aware that sexual harassment in the workplace is something we all need to be aware of. He then asked for comments. Have a guess whose hand went up first?

My opening remark was that the sentiments expressed in the passage he read out, although a work of fiction, are a foundation of third wave feminism. I then stopped to briefly explain the difference between second and third wave feminism, because this appeared to be new territory for everyone, including the professor. I then said that, if these sentiments are true and men are truly unreformable sex pests, the logical conclusion is a return to segregated workplaces and an admission that those old dinosaurs of the 1950s were right all along. Is this what everyone wants? Silence.

A lively discussion ensued and I withdrew for a few minutes, but when the subject of the gender pay gap and the glass ceiling came up, I had a wealth of pre-prepared arguments to put forward. The clincher was, if all these brilliant women are underpaid, why hasn’t a company sprung up which hires them all and crushed their competitors into dust? That one made the professor pause.

The thing is, as I wrote here, if you’re going to raise a contentious issue you’d better hope there’s not someone in the audience who’s given it serious consideration and reached a different conclusion from you unless you have all your ducks in a row. All I was doing is repeating the strongest lines of argument I’d seen others make – such as Christina Hoff Sommers, Ben Shapiro, and Jordan Peterson – during endless debates on the same subject. At one point I had to confess, with a grin, that reading and writing about this stuff is a hobby of mine. I don’t think anyone expected that.

Still, it was a good discussion and the professor right to raise it: sexual harassment is a big topic in the modern business environment, whether we like it or not. I also learned from the professor that Switzerland is a very conservative country, and they haven’t bought into a lot of the gender equality stuff. As I’ve said before, the Swiss are a serious people.

Share

Back to School

So yesterday and today were registration and orientation days for my MBA, which will start properly on Monday. The first thing I noticed when we all assembled was I was the oldest person there by roughly a decade, and a good twenty years older than most. I  then realised I was mingling with undergrads which explained some, but not all, of the discrepancy. Alas, even once the MBA students had been filtered out, I was still the grandpa of the bunch. Some of them looked about fifteen.

You know when sometimes you wish you could go back in time and relive your younger days, only with the knowledge and wisdom you have now? Well, I felt a bit like I was doing that yesterday. The Dean of the school spoke to us – undergrads and postgrads together – and I nodded along thinking “yup, that’s about right”. I particularly liked the bit about having to get used to a new place and new culture. Interestingly, I probably listened more this time around than I did back in 1996. I’m not in the slightest bit concerned by what’s coming.

The business school is small, tiny in fact, and my MBA class only a handful of people. As such, I’ve already met pretty much all the staff and know half of them by name, including the Dean and his deputy. Contrast this with the University of Manchester which had thousands of students and a sprawling hierarchy between the Dean and the undergrads. Chatting with a few of the professors it seems they have considerable experience outside academia, which is a good sign. One thing they stressed is timekeeping: lectures start on time and the professors get annoyed if people are late. This is also a good sign. One of the reasons I chose Switzerland over France (which was cheaper) is I could imagine shelling out a load of money to find the lecturers unorganised, uninterested, and late which would annoy me no end. I don’t know if that’s what French business schools are like, but I didn’t want to risk it.

I heard a lot of Russian being spoken over the past two days, and I kept quiet that I could understand half of it. Quite a few of the school staff are Russian speakers, and we had Russians, Ukrainians, and Kazakhs in our group yesterday. As far as I could tell, I was the only Brit. In my MBA class I’m joined by two African ladies, a lady from Austria, a female NHS surgeon, a lady from Siberia, and a Thai chap who reckons it’s high time someone sorted his country out and the job should fall to him. Good on him, I say. We also have a bloke who speaks Russian and a Thai lady. While I am studying HR because nobody in that area of business understands engineering, projects, and operations the surgeon is doing an MBA because none of the managers in the NHS has a clue about medicine. Perhaps bridging yawning chasms in an increasingly managerial world is a well-paying niche? I hope so.

One thing I noticed is, like in France, young people in Switzerland an elsewhere in Europe spend an awful lot of their twenties doing a series of internships. Due to the labour laws, nobody wants to hire anyone young and experienced so they only offer them short-term internships. These seem very popular in Geneva. It appears jobs are thin on the ground in this city, especially for those with no experience. I’m hoping my experience will land me something once I graduate, but others are doing an MBA with almost no work experience because they have little other choice than to keep studying. This doesn’t sound like a very good state of affairs to me.

The school has pretty good industry connections and people who can advise how to land a job once you graduate. There are lots of company visits, guest speakers, and networking events which I intend to get the absolute maximum from. It seems having a chat with someone who likes the cut of your jib is a better way to get into a company than going through HR who, according to the person in charge of careers, are always useless. Who knew? However, I remarked that the names of the companies which flashed on the screen were giant corporations or supranational bodies, the type of which I wish to avoid and would be reluctant to hire a blogger who says mean things about polyamorists in an HR post. Google’s name was mentioned and everyone fell into an awed silence, whereas I thought I’d like to ask whoever shows up what he thinks of James Damore’s sacking, the board weeping over Hillary’s loss, allegations of trying to swing the election, and the inevitable antitrust suit that’s going to break the company up. I should probably learn to keep my trap shut on this course. Thankfully, the school and the professors also have connections with smaller companies, including a lot of start-ups.

We were also given some practical advice about Switzerland which gave me the impression it’s a serious country. For starters, you can’t do anything without a residency permit, and for that you need to demonstrate you have an address. They then post the permit to that address and if your name isn’t on the mailbox, they don’t deliver it. In fact, the Swiss postal service won’t deliver anything unless your name is on the mailbox. The person doing the presentation was almost apologetic about this, saying it was to make sure everyone who is claiming residency is living where they’re supposed to be. I thought it was a splendid policy, and if the UK had applied such common sense the authorities would have known who was in the Grenfell Tower and there wouldn’t have been the opportunity for wholesale fraud. We were also told that in Switzerland you pay your damned bills. If you don’t, you get one warning and a fine, then another, and after that you’re on some list which will make it impossible for you to rent or sign up to any new service for at least five years. Like I said, Switzerland is a serious country.

So on Monday I start: 5 evenings per week between 18:00 and 21:00 with a 16:30 start on Fridays. There will also be seminars twice a semester, plus other stuff I need to do. I was dismayed to find out I will have to write essays by hand under exam conditions because I simply cannot write any more: since graduation in 2000 I’ve had no reason to write block text, and the billion words I’ve written since then have all been done on a computer. So my first task is to practice handwriting again, writing two sides of A4 per day until I’m comfortable doing it again. I’d better get on with it.

Share

Geneva: Still Dull and Expensive

Sometimes I wonder if the BBC is a bit like the Clinton Foundation and receives hefty bribes cash donations in exchange for favourable treatment, in this case puff-pieces on various trendy expat locations.  This week the city under discussion is Geneva:

For an affluent country once considered one of the most stable economies in the world, Switzerland is going through a rocky patch.

In the country’s financial hub, Geneva, a slowing economy and an investigation into the country’s secretive banking industry has led to almost 2,000 jobs being cut over three years, about 9% of the sector, according to the Geneva Financial Center.  In the coming years, more jobs could disappear following Brexit, since the UK is Geneva’s fourth largest trading partner.

Eh?  Geneva – located in a non-EU country – could see jobs disappear because Britain leaves the EU?  What’s the mechanism for that, then?  The BBC doesn’t say.

Yet the city (which is not the capital, that’s Bern) remains an incredibly popular place for expats to relocate to for work. Mercer’s 2016 Quality of Living Survey ranks Geneva among the top ten cities to live in, scoring highly for personal safety and quality of life.

Ah yes, we’ve been here before: these surveys tend to identify which cities upper-middle class wives with husbands who draw large corporate salaries most like to live and raise kids in.  The result is usually a list of cities which are clean, safe, expensive – and mind-numbingly dull.  Geneva, then.

One of these fans is Silvana Soldaini. After nearly 20 years working in Milan, Italy, Soldaini received a job offer to work in banking in Geneva. She arrived in March 2004 as a single parent of two.

Before she arrived in Geneva, she held some common preconceptions about it.  “Being an Italian, my stereotype of [the city] was that it was stiff, that it had a culture without much soul to it,” she says.

Twelve years on, she’s a convert. She lives in a spacious apartment a 10-minute walk from Lake Geneva and has no desire to move back to Italy. Her two teenage children speak French, Italian, German and English.

Okay, good for her.  But if you’re looking for somebody to disprove the stereotype of Geneva being a boring city, you might want to pick a 25 year old bachelor rather than a middle-aged woman bringing up two kids on her own.

Switzerland is one of those places where the 1% – that tiny chunk of the global population who are rolling in money – are conspicuous. Luxury watchmakers specialising in diamond-encrusted watch faces line the riverfront, and it’s not uncommon to see Ferraris and Lamborghinis cruising down the spotless streets.

So a bit like London, Paris, New York, Dubai, and Singapore, then.  With the possible exception of the spotless streets in those first three.

Initially drawn here by higher salaries, expats – especially those with families – often choose to stay for the year-round cultural events such as the Geneva Music Festival or Nuit de Bains, a contemporary art event, plus a wide range of outdoor activities around Lake Geneva…

…but mainly for the higher salaries.  And wifey’s ability to park the Porsche Cayenne without some brown oik nicking it.

While it used to be standard practice for multinational firms to fork out for housing and children’s school fees, this is not always the case today, says Laetitia Bédat, managing director of relocation agency Welcome Service. Now, most foreign hires will either get no allowances or they will only get relocation services, tax assistance and medical benefits.

Bless.  How will they cope?

According to research from global consultancy firm ECA International, Geneva is one of the most expensive cities in Europe, second only to Zurich. In other words, you will need good salary prospects to even consider living there.

For American Sarah Brooks, who moved from Washington, DC to work at a human rights organisation, she found her expenses comparable.  “There is more take-home salary,” Brooks says, “and I find I tend to spend it in different ways, like I don’t spend it on commuting anymore.”

Why a human rights organisation chooses to base itself in one of the most expensive cities in Europe is a question the BBC didn’t bother to ask.  But I’m glad those who work selflessly for the betterment of mankind aren’t having to slum it:

According to the survey, nearly a third of expats in Geneva earn more than $200,000 a year, second only to Hong Kong’s high-earners.

Which will no doubt bring comfort to those rotting in the dungeons of a third-world kleptocracy.

For Olivier Greneche, his reason for relocating from Paris in 2012 was simple.

He could finally escape French meetings?

Besides the job opportunity from a French bank, it was also for his two children who were toddlers at that time. Geneva’s access to nature and green spaces made it an easy decision.

“To understand Switzerland, and to fully enjoy Geneva, you should be keen on going to a chalet in the mountains on the weekends and the countryside quite often,” he says.

Similarly, to understand France, and to fully enjoy Marseilles, you should be keen on taking your yacht out at the weekends.

Soldaini’s family were much more city-centric, and state benefits – such as allocating 250 Swiss francs (about $260) per child to a family or the four public swimming pools within a 15-minute bike ride from her apartment – made life as a single working mother much more manageable.

Which is great, until you learn that:

Eating out could terrify frugal newcomers. Lunch in a low-key restaurant will generally cost more than $20, while a mid-range restaurant can quickly surpass the $100 mark with wine.

Does having free stuff offset ludicrously high prices?  I’ve generally found it doesn’t.

As for their schooling, Geneva is spoiled for choice. Public schools are free, and generally considered very good. Due to the large number of expats, there are plenty of international and private schools, although tuition fees can hit 30,000 CHF ($31,200) a year, says Greneche.

I think that tells you just about everything you need to know about the type of people who show up for expat positions in Geneva and the taxpayer-funded international organisations that are based there.

Much of the residents’ social lives revolve around stunning Lake Geneva, a pristine, freshwater lake measuring roughly 21 sq km.

Tim Worstall is forever bemoaning journalists’ lack of grasp of orders of magnitude: Lake Geneva covers 580 square kilometres.

So Geneva sounds awesome.  Only:

Often, residents cross the border into France at weekends to buy groceries, to avoid Switzerland’s higher prices. Produce is generally double supermarket prices in France, while meat generally costs triple.

What the article doesn’t mention is how many people work in Geneva but choose to live over the border in France, getting the best of both worlds with high salaries but lower living costs in a place which doesn’t shut down and go to sleep at 6pm.  This practice is so widespread that the canton of Geneva and others deduct French taxes from your salary. Yes, there is a reason why Annecy and its surroundings are so popular, and it’s not just because of the lake.

Share