Swiss Women Hold a Day of Protest Over Workplace Inequality

Catherine Bosley
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Swiss Women Hold a Day of Protest Over Workplace Inequality

(Bloomberg) -- In the eyes of trade unionist Corinne Schaerer, Switzerland is moving at a snail’s pace when it comes to having men and women on equal footing in the workplace.

That’s why she’s helping to organize a day of protest on Friday, that will include demonstrations in cities from Geneva to Zurich, as well as at the parliament in Bern.

The issue is far from unique to Switzerland. Britain has exposed pay gaps by forcing companies to publish data, and bias and discrimination have been exposed in multiple industries. But Swiss progress may be additionally handicapped by the stigma often associated with the idea of women working full time.

The problem is further compounded by a lack of affordable childcare. While there’s statutory paid maternity leave, new dads only have the right to a single day off. That stands in contrast to neighboring Germany, where new parents get up to three years that can be split between them.

Schaerer says Switzerland lags in comparison with other European countries, an issue that’s also been noted by the OECD. It’s told the country -- where women only got the right to vote in federal elections in the 1970s -- to improve both women’s labor market participation and early childhood education services.

“We’re hoping for concrete improvements to gender equality -- on questions of pay, sexual harassment at companies and sexism in society, and that having working women becomes the norm,” said Schaerer, central secretary of labor union Unia, one of the groups behind Friday’s show of force.

As in most industrialized countries, gender-based discrimination in the workplace is illegal in Switzerland, but -- just as elsewhere -- women still typically earn less than men do.

The pay gap, which compares the median wages earned by men with that of women, is a rudimentary measure because it doesn’t take things like career type and professional experience into account. Still, Switzerland’s statistics office estimates says that only explains about 60% of the difference.

The rest? Having a child causes women’s earnings to suffer, because careers are put on hold or they go for jobs with flexible schedules. Women also still shoulder a bigger share of the caretaking and housekeeping burden.

A group of economists including Josef Zweimueller of the University of Zurich have described the effect as a “child penalty” on earnings. They’ve calculated that in the U.S. and the U.K., the long-run fine was 31% and 44% respectively, while in Austria and Germany it’s more than 50%.

One reason for the discrepancy is cultural attitudes -- the belief is more prevalent in the German-speaking world that children should be looked after by their mothers. There’s even a term for mothers considered to be falling short: Rabenmutter, which translates into raven mother.

“For a long time, it was seen as a privilege for middle class families that the wife didn’t have to work,” said Gudrun Sander, director of the diversity and management programs at the University of St. Gallen. “We have very clearly defined gender roles and expectations.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Catherine Bosley in Zurich at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jan Dahinten at, Zoe Schneeweiss, Fergal O'Brien

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