I did some research before moving to Zurich. Among other things, I found out that it was normal for mums to stay at home with their children, and that school kids generally came home in their long lunch break. To be honest it all sounded quite idyllic. Maybe life would be easier. I worked three days a week in Sydney, which was a good balance for our family, but it’s fair to say that picking everyone up and then tackling the homework, dinner, bath, bed routine wasn’t particularly fun for anyone. So it was with an open mind I arrived in Switzerland.
Language classes are a good way to try and suss out a place because the language is taught in a cultural context. In German class, not long after we’d started, it was time to talk about work. Some tried to explain what they’d done before moving to Switzerland, but no, that wasn’t relevant any more. The teacher wanted us to reveal what we were doing now. He knew the answer already, we were there at eight thirty in the morning, and our course came with childcare. He helpfully wrote ‘Hausfrau’ on the board. Soon enough it was my turn.
“Ich bin nicht Hausfrau” came my indignant response “Ich bin Mutter”
“Nein, du bist Hausfrau”
I felt somehow deflated. I’m not sure why I objected to being called a housewife. Maybe because I hope I’m a good mum, but I’m a fairly average housewife. I just find cleaning so dull. Something about that exchange made me wonder how real the Swiss idyll was. I started to get the feeling that Swiss women might not be so free in their choices after all.
Switzerland came 11th on the Global Gender Gap Index 2014 for overall equality and 23rd for economic participation and opportunity. This was an improvement from 2007 where it ranked 40th for overall equality.
Gender equality and equal pay for equal work have been part of the federal constitution since 1981, yet Switzerland remains one of the worst places for wage discrimination. Women earn on average 20% less than men. In 2010, the statistics office estimated that 40% of Switzerland’s gender pay gap was unexplained and probably pure discrimination.
Switzerland was ranked 13th on the Save the Children State of the World’s Mothers report 2014. A recent report described Swiss motherhood as being defined by the ongoing presence of traditional family values where the idea of women as homemakers still exists.
Since 2005, working women have been entitled to 14 weeks maternity leave with 80% of their salary. Before that, there was no obligatory maternity benefit.
Around 80% of mothers in Switzerland with children under the age of 15 work part-time. It’s rare for women to build up to full-time again when their children are older. Sixteen percent of mothers with children under the age of 25 are employed full-time. Almost one in four are stay at home mums. A mindset remains that it’s impossible to work 100% with children under the age of 15.
It seems that the traditional role is changing, and that women increasingly want to go back to work, but are prevented to do so by a lack of choice and viable work model. Childcare and schools are still set up to cater to the traditional family where a parent stays at home. School hours are not always the same, so children in the same family may have staggered start and finish times. Swiss schools also have up to two hours off for lunch where children go home to eat.
I have to agree with the difficulties of school hours. My older two are at school and their school day is 8.20 to 3.20 pm. Their lunch break is 12.00 to 1.40 pm. Most of their friends go home for lunch. Mine stay at school, but we pay CHF 7 per child per day to send them with a packed lunch as staying at school for lunch is classed as childcare. On Wednesdays there is no school in the afternoon. There are no after school care facilities at their school. My little girl is five and goes to compulsory pre-school which is from 8.00 to 11.55 am. This is her timetable until she is six, when she will start school.
Switzerland’s federal political structure means that state interference in issues concerning mothers and the family is limited and there is still some debate as to what role the state should play in family matters such as childcare. The view is still engrained that childcare before pre-school is up to the family and that the state shouldn’t interfere with private affairs. In March 2013 a constitutional amendment was proposed by parliament to improve conditions for working families by giving both the federal and cantonal authorities powers to boost childcare options. The amendment was rejected by voters.
Full-time day care can cost Swiss parents two-thirds of an average salary, more than any other country in the world. A place in a day care can cost up to CHF 170 a day. Almost 90% of childcare centres are private and financed by parents. In total, just 0.1% of Switzerland’s gross domestic product (GDP) is designated for financing childcare, less than most other European countries.
Three-quarters of children under the age of three still do not have access to day care. Switzerland has one of the lowest proportions of children under the age of three who attend day care for a majority of their time. Thirty five percent of children attend daycare two days a week, 20% one or three days and 10% four days. Almost 80% of grandparents regularly look after their grandchildren.
The creation of more childcare places at affordable prices is one measure that is regularly proposed by unions and the political left as a means of reducing the salary gap.
Working mothers in Switzerland have to fight for social acceptance against traditional thinking and people who believe that mothers are selfish to work and send their children to day care. The UN has shown concern at the persistence of entrenched traditional stereotypes regarding the role and responsibilities of women and men in the family and in society at large.
Recent discussions have focused on the argument that better integration of women into the workforce would reduce the need to look abroad for the workers required to fuel economic growth. It will be interesting to see how this develops as it is one of the measures proposed by the Swiss government in preparation for the initiative “against mass immigration”.
It’s now been almost two years since I started those first searches on how life in Zurich would be. We haven’t been here very long, so I feel like I am still trying to figure out how the society really is. The fact we are both foreigners means that we will always have a relatively superficial understanding. This is different to Norway, where I had a deeper knowledge because I was together with a Norwegian and as a result was more integrated.
Sometimes I look at my children and wonder how it would be for them if we were to stay in Switzerland. Will my daughters be able to realise their dreams, whatever they may be? Will my son think that it is fine for him to get more money for doing the same job as his sisters, simply because he is a boy? I can’t help the feeling that if we were to stay permanently that they would have to fight for the freedoms that have already been won where they have lived before. Will their future be hindered by traditional thinking that will continue through to the next generation? To their generation? I suspect the answer might be yes.