Switzerland is not known for ostentatious electoral campaigns and, bar a few exceptions, doesn’t practice personality politics. But every few years, as federal elections approach long-standing social debates become more heated and more toxic. That’s how you know that it’s campaign season.
With parliamentary elections scheduled for October this year, politicians currently seem quite eager to publicly position themselves for or against particularly polarizing issues. One controversial issue – and frankly I cannot believe that I am writing these lines in 2023 – is the labor market participation of women or, more specifically, mothers. Because the thing is, mothers in Switzerland work much, much less than fathers. Sorry, let me rephrase that: mothers in Switzerland do on average work more hours per day than their male partners, however, they are paid for a much smaller fraction of these hours.
So far, Switzerland has shown a frightening lack of ambition when it comes to the labor market participation of mothers, viewing part-time work as the ultimate solution to reconcile work and family – as illustrated by this overly celebratory press release:
“In 2021, 82% of mothers in Switzerland were economically active. This high level of labour market participation goes hand in hand with a large proportion of part-time work. After the birth of their first child, one in nine economically active mothers leaves the labour market and the proportion of part-time work doubles. In Switzerland, the proportion of mothers participating in the labour market is higher than the European average.”
And when the problem is pointed out, the answer is invariably “But this is what women in Switzerland want, they freely choose to work part-time in order to spend more time with their kids!”. So once the election cycle is over, the issue is shelved and almost everyone goes back to sleep. Except for mothers.
So what is actually going on? What do the data say?
Turns out the excerpt above lacks some of the details…
80% of working mothers in Switzerland work part-time, but only 40% of women without children do. Add to this the fact that around 20% of mothers do not work at all, this means that only around 16% of mothers in Switzerland work full-time or nearly full time (90 to 100%), vs. around 60% of women without children (sixteen vs. sixty, you read that right).
These 16% include single mothers, who tend to work more on average than mothers who live with a partner or spouse, simply because working part-time is a privilege you have to be able to afford.
However, if we zoom in on what the statistics office very elegantly refers to as “couple households”, the picture becomes even clearer: in around 54% of couples without children, both partners work full time; this proportion decreases to just 14.4% in couples with children whose youngest child is under 4, and then declines even further to 13% in couples whose youngest child is between 4 and 12, before increasing slightly to 19.3 in couples whose youngest child is between 13 and 24.
These numbers show three important things:
1. Women who leave or partially leave the labor market once they become mothers do not come back, even when their children are way, way, way old enough to take care of themselves – this is because taking “a few years off” and then “picking up where you left it” is much easier said that done. Women’s skills might no longer be up to date, they might face discrimination when applying for positions that are too junior for their age, they might have become estranged or excluded from important professional networks that they had built prior to having children, or they might simply have lost any self-confidence to even go out and apply for a job.
2. It is (a bit) easier to reconcile work and family when a child is under 4, than after they start school. This is simply due to the fact that child care provision actually becomes worse once a child starts school. For one, daycares are open most of the year except for 4-5 weeks in most places, while schools close around 14 weeks a year and often don’t offer any childcare during the school holidays (you may be shocked to find out that workers in Switzerland do not enjoy 14 weeks of holidays a year). This means that parents sometimes take their vacation weeks separately to spread them out over 8 to 10 weeks instead of 4 or 5. In addition, daycare accepts children full time (i. e. morning to evening every day of the week), while kids ages 4 and 5 in Switzerland generally only have about 10h of actual school per week. The specific schedule changes from class to class, which means that if you have 2 kids in school in different years, they will have different mornings and afternoons off. Thus, once they age out of daycare, kids will either have to be registered for after-school care, for which places are limited, or someone will have to constantly pick them and take care of them at basically random hours in the middle of the day (I was thinking of something witty to put in these brackets but I have nothing, absolutely nothing).
3. Having a child does not seem to affect the career of the majority of fathers in the slightest. And I think given point 2 above, this in itself is quite telling.
Situations where the male partner is working part-time or not working and the female partner is working full-time are basically non-existent in Switzerland: less than 3% of couples with kids fall into this category. Stay at home mothers still make up 13 to 16% of all mothers when the youngest child is under 12, i.e. they outnumber stay at home fathers 4 or 5 to 1 (which explains why I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting a SAHF in Switzerland so far).
And lastly, the statistics reveal that the most common model by far in Switzerland remains “she works part time” and “he works full time” model. While this situation only applies to 21% of couples without children, the proportion increases sharply after the birth of a first child: it applies to 47% of couples whose youngest child is under 4, 53% of couples whose youngest child is between 4 and 12 and still 53% of couples whose youngest child is between 12 and 24 (because the women don’t go back to work).
Reasons and consequences
To be crystal clear: working less to spend time with your children is an absolutely legitimate ideal, even though it is currently unfortunately a privilege that not everyone can afford.
I don’t believe that everyone should try to maximize the amount of time they spend working, on the contrary, I believe that it is high time for a 4-day work week, that we need to explore UBI and that the fact that full-time in Switzerland means “42 hours a week” puts us out of synch with most of Western Europe for not good reason other than “that is how it has been forever”.
Indeed, women working around 80% in Switzerland (i.e. around 34h!) are closer to a French “35 heures” than to a Swiss 50%. Calling it part-time is basically a misnomer. As such, part-time work has many faces and in terms of how couples manage the logistics of child care, there is ultimately not much difference between a couple where both work 100% and a couple where he works 100% and she works 80%.
What is shocking, however, is how gendered the decision to partially or fully leave the labour market after having children still is in Switzerland today: while 80% of mothers work part-time, only around 10% of fathers do, and for good measure, the statistics office lumps these fathers in with the “economically inactive” so there is no way of knowing how many fathers actually make a conscious decision to reduce their workload after having a child, and how many are simply unemployed or not able to work.
Furthermore, if unsolicited anecdotal evidence that I have involuntarily been collecting ever since becoming a mother is anything to go by, then mothers who work full time or nearly full time are regularly and repeatedly encouraged by people in their environment to reduce the amount of work they do whenever their child shows any sign of “acting up” or “being sad”.
People just tell you to consider reducing your work percentage.
Just to be sure.
Just out of concern for your well-being and that of your child.
Because what if something really bad happens to your child because you worked too much?
Oh, and in case it wasn’t clear: this kind of “advice” is generally not given to fathers.
Working part-time also has very real negative consequences for women’s career progression, their salaries and their pensions. I’m too tired to add sources, just google it or ask ChatGPT to write you an essay about pensions written from the perspective of a part-time working mother in Switzerland.
Men, however, often get a boost in their career once they become fathers and their career progression not only doesn’t slow down but often accelerates after having kids. Even though both these tendencies are well known, the Swiss Federal Court recently decided to “modernize” is jurisprudence, arguing that – in the name of equality, of all things – women could just go back to work after their divorce, thus freeing the husband of any obligation to pay them part of his salary or grant them part of his pension.
In other words, in 2021, the federal court decided to abandon its existing practice in order to become more progressive, while fully ignoring the fact that society does not seem to live up to this imaginary standard and that decades-long holes in one’s pension contribution cannot easily be plugged “after the fact”.
Clearly, creating a precedent that will put the fear of old-age poverty into the minds of women who stay at home or work small percentages is the best approach to usher in this era of progress – I cannot think of anything else that would be more effective.
So frankly, when I read that Swiss public television invites three men and only one woman to a discussion about better parental leave for both parents, or as recently as 2019 we still needed a scientific study to finally confirm that children who attend daycare do not have attachment problems compared to those who stay at home with mommy, or that people are surprised that simply reducing the cost of daycare would not magically lead to higher labour market participation for mothers (and seem to conclude that this means that “cost should stay as it is” and not that a single drop cannot turn the tides), it is hard to not feel discouraged.
Yes, women “freely choose” to work part-time, but they do so because society inexorably pushes them towards this decision: our tax system is optimized for one spouse working part-time, public childcare institutions in Switzerland lag far behind the demand, private ones are so expensive that working becomes “not worth it” for whoever has the lower salary in the couple (hint: the woman), there is basically no parental leave for fathers (yes, I know, we recently adopted 2 weeks of parental leave… amazing…), and society constantly sends the message to women that being a good mother means working part-time.
So, to whoever needs to hear this right now: whatever “category” you fall into, I know that it comes with sacrifices and that you are trying your best. You are a rock star. And if you think that maybe you could work towards turning the tide a little bit for all mothers in Switzerland, then more power to you.
And if you are planning to prevent the tide from turning, better grab a life vest.
You know, just to be sure.
I say this purely out of concern for your well-being.
Because what if something really bad happens to you when the tide finally turns?
The truth is that this was a bit of a rant. And that I wanted it to be more structured and better sourced. With pictures and memes and graphs.
But I’m also tired because I am part of that 16% which I didn’t know existed. And I have decided to cut myself some slack because we all know that adding a shiny graph isn’t going to wake up those who have been faking sleep for years just to avoid having to act.