The Swiss Nirvana Where Mothers Get A Rough Deal

Luisa Markides
Luisa Markides

The Swiss Nirvana Where Mothers Get A Rough Deal

That there are very few better places to live and bring up a family than Switzerland is a statement backed by innumerable polls, surveys, and studies over recent years. The alpine kingdom is regularly voted as one of the best places in the world to live, with Zürich and Geneva consistently listed among the best cities for quality of life. 

Some would say this hardly surprising. Switzerland is, after all, one of the world’s richest countries, attracting wealthy foreigners with its low taxes, financial stability, outstanding education, top healthcare system, and relatively low crime rate. And just as there is little danger of it taking any rash monetary decisions, nor is there a realistic prospect of the Swiss taking diplomatic or military risks. It has long declared itself ‘neutral’ in foreign affairs and was last involved in a war in 1505.

The list of plaudits for this landlocked confederation goes on, not least for its tourist attractions, such as the legendary ski slopes, and its culinary prowess, with 400 cheeses and extraordinary chocolate. 

Everywhere you look, it tops the tables, for instance with its top-ranking universities, namely the ETH in Zurich and the EPFL in Lausanne. It even has space. Compare London, with its population density of 5,701 people per square kilometer, to Switzerland, where there are 219 people per square km. If all that wasn’t enough, it hasn’t executed anyone since 1940, so it is liberal too.

Idyllic, progressive, wealthy - Switzerland seems to have it all. Yet some of its 8.6 million citizens may still feel that they drew the short straw. Those with a grievance could be said to include mothers. With a relatively low birth rate (it is now roughly half the world’s average), the population has grown only marginally over the past ten years, so the numbers suggest they have a point.

Is the system skewed against Swiss mums? To answer this, it helps to better understand the foundational structure and set-up of the country - a confederation composed of 26 small cantons, with four official languages, where German (spoken by 63 percent of the population) is heard alongside French, Italian, and Romansh. Most citizens are multilingual, and despite the differences between cantons, the Swiss typically live closely and peacefully with one another.

The country is governed by a federal council, a seven-member collegial body whose decisions are made by consensus, with a three-tier government structure at the level of confederation, canton, and commune. Direct democracy thrives here. Citizens have their say on matters at all political levels.Yet despite this list of progressive achievements, it was only recently that women were allowed to vote. 

In 1971, men in Switzerland finally voted for women’s suffrage, almost 200 years after women were first given the vote in New Jersey. Even then, less than two thirds of Swiss men felt the vote should be extended to their womenfolk. Furthermore, the referendum threw up differences at the canton-level. Only in 1991 did Switzerland’s highest court force the last canton (Appenzell Innerrhoden) to allow women to vote.

From politics to economics, the Swiss Federal Statistics Office has lighted an apparent lack of opportunity and/or advancement of women in the workplace. “Women are generally employed in lower position than men,” it said. “They are more often in non-management positions. Men are much more often self-employed or employed as director. These differences exist even between men and women with the same educational level.”

Some observers say this disparity flows from the traditional Swiss family structure. Most households in Switzerland still rely on the father’s income, and most Swiss-based fathers with children under the age of 25 are employed full-time. Conversely, the same polls show that far fewer mothers work full-time hours, only between 14-18.5 percent. This role distribution is familiar across the country. Put simply, some say, the woman is still expected to stay at home and raise the children. 

If this were true, one might expect there to be state incentives in this direction, but these seem absent. For instance, whereas in the UK women are legally entitled to 12 months maternity leave, in Switzerland this is a mere 14 weeks, the minimum period allowed under European legislation.

Choices narrow for single mothers, up to 30 percent of whom work full-time, far more so than women in a relationship who have children under the age of 13. These mothers of younger children are statistically less likely to be employed than mothers of children aged between 13-25 years of age.

The first small signs of change have been observed since 2010, with slightly more women working full-time, and slightly more men taking part-time hours, in a bid to support their partners at home. Yet In other spheres, differences remain stark, not least in terms of pay.

Women in Switzerland still earn an average of about 18 percent less than men in the same position. The higher one ascends the salary ladder, the more distinct the difference. Lower salaries have a knock-on effect in areas such as a woman’s pension.

The division of labor at home can come down to popular perceptions, commentators argue. For example, Swiss mothers who work four days a week are seldom praised in a society that still expects them to look after the children at home for more than one day a week. Likewise, a father who chooses to work four days a week in order to help with the children for one day a week is seen as admirable. This inequality in societal viewpoints can hinder mothers who wish to return to the workplace. 

A common consequence is that women either give up their careers or reduce their hours to part-time, which can stymie their promotion prospects, and although mothers as housewives often find it a rewarding life, the 24/7 demands of childcare can prove overwhelming, with no time to rest.

In summary, Switzerland remains a haven in many areas and fully deserves its high placement in the quality of life polls, but the lot of a Swiss woman who opts for motherhood can quickly become less favorable, with financial vulnerabilities and social stigmas to deal with. It is in this area that the Swiss government may seek to make changes.

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