A - Z 2020 Switzerland - Equality

Welcome back to my Swiss themed 2020 A - Z.

Today I'm talking about equality.

Switzerland prides itself on qualities like liberty, equality and fraternity. We have Napoleon and the French Revolution to thank for it.

Vaud, one of our French speaking cantons (=states) is keeping it real and owns up to the fact that equality is probably not there just yet:

Photo Credit: Flaggenfritze

I don't know what life was like back then, and I am sure we have come a long way. 

There's still a lot of change and work ahead of us, though.

For starters it's still an old boys' club around here. Up until 1971 women were not allowed to vote. Switzerland was the last European country to finally grant this fundamental right to half of its citizens. It took until 1990 that every canton (=state) and municipality followed suit.

Our marriage laws used to say the husband was the head of the family, and the wife had to take care of housekeeping. Without his consent, she was not allowed to have a job and / or a bank account. Once married, she was economically stuck. This law wasn't officially changed until 1988, even though the bank account issue must have gone away earlier; I've never had a problem. Then again I wasn't married prior to 1988 ;-)

Growing up, my own Mom as well as almost all of my friends' mothers were stay at home Moms, making breakfast, lunch and dinner, cleaning, laundering, taking care of the family. Most didn't have a driver's license, so they were stuck at home.

The only women I knew of who worked, were Italian immigrants who were forced to generate a second income because they and their husbands were "unskilled workers". Not happy about this term. It was mainly foreigners who built our tunnels and streets because in a country of full employment we didn't have enough of our own manpower. 

Anyway, the Italian Moms worked as factory employees or as cleaning ladies, and the kids attended dopo scuola, an after school program run by the Italian church community. 

Let's rewind a couple of years, though (mid-1940s and later, even though there were foreign workers as far back as the late 1800s). 

At first, only the male foreigners were given temporary work visa - their status had a nice, welcoming name, it was called "Gastarbeiter" = guest worker. It's not what they were treated like though. Foreigners were frowned upon to put it mildly. I'll touch more on the subject when it comes to X is for Xenophobic.

The hard reality was: construction happened between spring and fall, so the longest stretch of time these guys were allowed to stay in Switzerland was nine months. During that time they had to leave their families back home. At that time not every household had a landline. These Dads saved up a lot of coins to call home from payphones. This may sound ridiculous today, but back then, as soon as you called beyond the Swiss network, costs would add up quickly. 

What's my point? These people worked hard, paid taxes, abided by the law for many years until they were finally able to bring their wive and kids to Switzerland on a permit that allowed them to live and work here. I think at first it needed to be renewed annually. 

Today they are permanent residents. The kids from back then (my classmates) are called Secondos (=from the second generation), and the Swiss have come to love the Italian cuisine. Duh.

Secondos came here as young kids or were even born and raised here. They speak Swiss German (and had to accompany their parents for parent teacher meetings to translate - that must have been interesting!), graduated from our schools, did an apprenticeship or studied at our universities. They contribute to our economy and are valuable citizens like you and me. Except they don't get to vote because they are not Swiss citizens.

There were initiatives trying to grant the Secondos the Swiss nationality somewhat by merit. Several times the Swiss voters said no. Finally, in 2017, it was democratically decided that members of the third immigration generation would be treated generously if they wished to apply for the Swiss passport. Late equality!

Back to Swiss Moms. 

Once they escaped their stay at home status, most of them (until this day) work part-time.

Kindergarten and elementary schools do not include lunch, so kids have to come home or attend some kids' meal program. While schedules have improved - every kid is now at school between 8am and 12pm, afternoons still differ. Some are 1 - 3pm, some 2 - 4pm, some completely off, and if you have two or three kids, you can count on opposite schedules.

Daycare and after-school spots are rare and pricey. Either you have a high income so it won't hurt you, or it is so low that costs are (after much fighting) subsidized. Too bad if you're an average earner. 

Oh, and while working mothers contribute to the economy and pay taxes (more taxes, actually, due to their marital status, their income triggers progressive taxation), they only get to deduct a small fraction of their childcare costs.

Don't get me started on the teachers' absences. Every quarter you'll get a list of special events the students get to participate in. Field trips, library, field and track day, you get the picture. Then there will be the occasional teachers' advanced education, on which day there's no school for the kids, and no alternative option. You're on your own, we told you in advance.

If a teacher is sick, in theory the school has to distribute the kids among the other teachers' classes. In reality they will send the kids home with a note saying "Classes are canceled until further notice. if you absolutely must, you may send your kid to teacher so-and-so's class."

Saying that the Swiss system is throwing you curveballs would be an understatement.

What about the corporate world? 

It is still common practice (I must know, I have been working in HR since the mid 1990s)  to flat out ask a 30-something single woman who applies for a job "so how about your family planning, do you intend to have babies?" This question will screw you no matter how you react. If you decline to answer, they won't like you, if you say no they think you're lying. If you say yes, they will find a polite way to hire someone whose qualifications matched our job description even better. 

God forbid you already have kids and apply for a job. They will tell you they expect you to observe office hours like everyone else and remind you to be flexible to work longer hours if a deadline requires it. You need to pick up your kids before childcare closes, well, that's not our problem. Work from home? Nah, we don't support that. 

I'm curious if this Corona situation may sustainably change the way we work, kids or not.

Some figures about Swiss women at work:

16.7% of all supervisors are women
21% is the percentage of female executives in small to medium Swiss companies
9% is the percentage of female executives in large Swiss companies
2.7% of CEO positions are held by ladies
22.8% of managers (I think male or female) work part-time
21% of members of the board of directors are female

The fact that in today's Federal Council we have three women out of seven members is nothing short of a sensation!

I haven't even been talking about wages! You knew this was coming, though, right? 

On average us girls make 18% less than our male coworkers. It goes without saying that we have to work harder to prove ourselves. Our federal constitution said in 1981 equal work needs to be paid equally, but if looks like this is just another piece of paper? 

I don't even know how they come up with 18%, it's lower than I expected - maybe because in typical low paid female jobs (nurses, waitresses, cleaning ladies, supermarket cashiers, beauty / hair artists, kindergarten teachers, daycare workers) there are too few male employees to compare with?

We have an equality act (1996) It talks about gender discrimination in terms of hiring, firing, working conditions, pay, etc. Well, talk is still cheap in 2020.

Not sure how all of this even affects our LGBT community. The individuals I am friends with don't seem to experience disadvantages in their everyday life. 

In 2005, the Swiss people voted to allow same-sex civil unions, which came into force in 2007. The civil partnership resembles marriage, with gay couples granted the same pension, inheritance and tax rights and obligations. However, adoption of children by gay couples in a civil partnership remains forbidden, as does the facilitated application process for non-Swiss to become citizens and access to fertility treatment.

How did our pedestrian crossings end up presenting themselves in rainbow colours? 

It was the surprising way the Zurich Lake Basin neighbourhood decked its streets for the 25 years' anniversary of the Zurich Pride Parade last summer. Street signs, lamp posts, pedestrian crossings; they all got a rainbow touch. And the most delightful part of it? It was a legal activity! The city council voted 92 : 17 in favor of this supportive statement. 

Way to go, otherwise conservative Switzerland!

I like to wrap up this post on this positive note. Apologies for the rant.

How is he situation where you live? Do you feel citizens are treated equally? Why (not)? Let me know in the comments below, and please be back tomorrow for another very Swiss topic: F is for Fondue, probably our number one national dish!

In the meantime, there is another post I published today: I am participating in a monthly project called Blog with Friends. April's theme is carrots, and I'll be sharing a recipe and instructions to make Swiss Style Carrot Cake Muffins. Don't miss it!


  1. Oh miam, Fondue!!! Ok let's back to today's post. In France it's not a lot better, women are still underpaid compare to men, and in a general matter, people are not very tolerant

  2. It's very interesting to learn more about Switzerland. I see that patriarchy is there as much as it is in the US. Men mostly own and control everything.

  3. At the end of the film Suffragette, they listed the year that women got the right to vote in different countries. I was shocked to see that Switzerland was so late -- I was nine years old in 1971! I remember that I looked it up because I could believe that was correct.

    Americans are also hoping that more work from home options open up after we've proved that work can get done that way. Women have it a bit better than you describe since kids eat lunch at school and substitute teachers take over classes as needed. But, the school day is still shorter than the average adult working day and there are always a variety of holidays plus a long summer break to deal with.

    It's devastating to see how COVID-19 is impacting our black community disproportionately. But, not surprising, because our systems are very much rigged. The US has a long way to go to build systems that are fair.

  4. I had NO idea that women couldn't vote until so recently! Or, at least what I think as recently. If things happen in my lifetime I think of it as recently! Did progressive couples live together in the 70s and 80s to avoid the issue of working women and head of household men?

  5. It sounds like so many countries the US included have a ways to go before we have true equality although we continue to make forward progress even if it feels slow at times. Interesting post. Weekends In Maine


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