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Beyond gender: an interview with the founder of Alpha, Isabelle Weiss

This Sunday (March 8th) is the first International Women’s Day of the new decade. For more than a century, the event has celebrated the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women across the world – #EachforEqual is this year’s hashtag, expected to trend globally.

But, in 2020, some are also discussing how to move beyond gender in the promotion of equality in the workplace and across society as a whole.  We talked to Isabelle Weiss, who founded Alpha more than 30 years ago, to get her views on this thought-provoking subject.

What does International Women’s Day mean to you?

Let me mention Marthe Gosteli, the great Swiss feminist. She had been fighting for years and years until finally, in 1971, she managed to convince the Swiss Federal Council to extend the right to vote to women, woefully behind most other countries of the world. It seems paradoxical therefore that Switzerland, together with Denmark, Germany and Austria, were the countries to celebrate the first International Women’s Day in 1911.

On 8th March 2017, Ms Gosteli (then 99) was asked what she thought of International Women’s Day. Her answer was: “I am not keen on it”. And that’s my opinion too. Why celebrate a Women’s Day when what we really want is equality for everyone all year round– female, male or wherever you sit on the gender spectrum?

Did gender influence how you began your career?

I happened to have been born at a time when you were either female or male and that was, particularly in Switzerland, a pretty determining factor in your life. In my case, I was sent to commercial high school and it was my father’s idea that I should become a secretary, preferably to a high-ranking boss.

Since I definitely did not fancy that, I embarked on a different venture. I became a translator. It was never my intention to become an entrepreneur, I just wanted to do a job that I loved, and when it started to attract more work than I could cope with, I added people.

[Editor’s note: Alpha now has 17 offices in 14 countries around the world]

Once you started your own business, did you have to overcome any gender barriers?

I never experienced any barriers that had anything to do with gender, certainly not in the UK, and this is where I built up the business. I have often thought that I would have found it more difficult in Switzerland.

Do you think professional opportunities have improved for this generation of women?

Opportunities are definitely much better now as so many more women get the chance to go to university and get themselves a degree. They are encouraged to enter into so-called male professions, like physics, astronomy, or engineering. That’s really great.

A general question: who inspires you?

My inspiration comes from people of all walks of life, and all genders. I just admire people who choose a profession they enjoy and they excel at, whether they do dentistry, hairdressing, or run a bookshop. Or even go into politics – as long as they are decent. Or a wonderful translator like Anthea Bell.

Looking at the discussion above, what do you think are the most important issues moving forward?

I would like to urge people to respect each other, regardless of gender, age or colour. I am aware that there is still gender bias in many industries as women feel they do not have the same support network or the same access to funds. But I think the world is moving towards a time where merit, perseverance and good ideas count more than your sex chromosomes.