Why Swiss Women Can’t Work After Winning Votes to Lead Nation

Switzerland’s Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga
The election in October of Simonetta Sommaruga, a trained concert pianist who is now Justice Minister, was a watershed as women for the first time held more cabinet posts than men. Photographer: Georges Gobets/AFP/Getty Images

Since women won the right to vote in the canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden in 1990, females have risen to rule Switzerland’s politics, making up four of the seven-member cabinet. Combining a career and motherhood presents a steeper climb.

Parents can end up spending almost a third of their wages on childcare, with Zurich nursery schools charging as much as 1,500 francs ($1,700) a month. Those costs, coupled with poor maternity benefits, banish many mothers to the home, said Clivia Koch, the former chief executive of an 8 billion-franc pension fund who now heads the non-profit Swiss Business Women group.

A second revolution is needed in the workplace to ensure more businesswomen emulate people like Panalpina Welttransport Holding AG Chief Executive Officer Monika Ribar and Isabelle Welton, International Business Machines Corp.’s general manager in Switzerland, Koch said. Less than 10 percent of Swiss families with children aged up to 14 years have both parents who work full-time, compared with more than 70 percent in the U.S., the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said.

“The first women who wanted freedom to choose their career path, the fighters, the pioneers, had to do it through politics, there was no other way,” said Koch, 53, in an interview at her organization’s Zurich headquarters. “Now we need fighters in business too.”

Of Swiss directors, 8.3 percent are women, down from 9 percent in 2004, management recruitment company Egon Zehnder’s most recent annual figures show. About 37 percent of Swiss couples with no children have both partners working full time. This drops to 8.7 percent after they have children, according to government figures.

Watershed Election

The election in October of Simonetta Sommaruga, a trained concert pianist who is now Justice Minister, was a watershed as women for the first time held more cabinet posts than men. It came almost four decades after the first Swiss women were permitted to vote in 1971.

Voting rights for Swiss women came 54 years after females in the former Soviet Union won the right to vote. All women in the U.S. were first permitted to cast a ballot in 1920.

Energy Minister Doris Leuthard, who was Swiss President in 2010, remembers her mother’s joy when female suffrage finally arrived in her country.

“She had given up her professional life when she got married,” she said in an interview. “For her, political rights were a form of recognition and vital for her self-esteem.”

Female Parliamentarians

Early female leaders like Josi Meier and Elisabeth Blunschy, among Switzerland’s first female parliamentarians, “were a great influence on me,” Leuthard said. “They influenced and encouraged many other women to become more active themselves.”

In the world’s fourth-richest nation, according to the International Monetary Fund, child care can cost parents 30 percent of their net income, the second-highest rate in the developed world behind the U.K., data from the OECD show. That compares with a global OECD average of 13 percent, and 19 percent in the U.S. and 4 percent in Belgium.

Switzerland didn’t introduce paid maternity leave until 2005, awarding mothers 14 weeks. Norwegian and German women are entitled to 47 weeks.

“We’re too rich,” Koch said. “There has never been a great necessity for women to work. We have to reassess our social security systems. In other countries, there is much better child care and society is more open to women pursuing a career.”

Population Decline

Swiss women have an average 1.33 children, government statistics show. That compares with 2 in France, Norway and the U.S., and a global average of 2.5, according to the Population Reference Bureau’s latest figures.

One third of over-45 year-old Swiss men and women say they would have liked more children, according to a recent poll for the L’Hebdo magazine. Sixty-six percent see women’s employment conditions as a brake on parenthood and 38 percent cite the lack of childcare as holding back the birth rate, the survey showed.

“The price we’re paying is population decline,” said sociologist Franz Schultheis, a professor at the University of St. Gallen. “It sounds paradoxical, but countries where more women work and state childcare is better actually have a higher birth rate.”

The Federal Commission for Family Affairs, a government body, proposed an initiative to extend maternity leave from 14 to at least 24 weeks, including for the first time an option for fathers to take four of those weeks.

A parliamentary vote won’t come for another year or two, said Juerg Krummenacher, the commission’s president.

Unique History

“We have to do more in Switzerland to combine family and career,” said Sommaruga. “I hope in my office I can contribute to that.”

The men of Appenzell Innerrhoden, whose chalets and cheese-making are among the country’s biggest tourist attractions, clung on until 1990 before a Supreme Court ruling forced them to let their female counterparts go to the polls.

One reason why Switzerland lags so far behind other nations when it comes to equality and women’s rights is its unique history and geography, said Dominique Grisard, a gender studies expert at the universities of Basel and Chicago.

With its natural mountain defenses, the country hasn’t faced a foreign invader since Napoleon, while neutrality in two world wars let the Swiss escape the “ruptures” that brought the rest of Europe’s women into factories to replace men drafted onto the battlefield, Grisard said.

‘Status Symbol’

When peace returned to the continent in 1945, Swiss governments preferred to fill a prospering jobs market with labor migrants, mostly from Italy, rather than encourage Swiss women to work, said Fabienne Amlinger, a historian at the University of Bern.

“In the 1950s, working men could increasingly afford to keep their wives at home,” Grisard said. “It became a status symbol.”

With a lower chamber in Parliament that is 19 percent female, Switzerland ranks 25th in the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s rankings, between Trinidad and Tobago and Timor-Leste.

“There’s still a long way to go,” said Leuthard.

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