In Switzerland, mothers are far more likely to have paid work than they were 30 years ago. In 2021, 82% had paid employment compared to 60% in 1991. Over this period, Switzerland has moved from one of the lowest European rates of working mums to one of the highest.
However, a sizeable employment gap remains between women with children (82%) and women without them (93%). In addition, few fathers have given up working to make way for mothers to work more – fathers’ rates of employment fell only 2 percentage points from 99% to 97% between 1991 and 2021. In 2021, a gap of 15 percentage points remained between the percentage of mothers (82%) and fathers (97%) in paid employment.
In addition, working mothers worked fewer paid hours than fathers. In 2022, 78% of working mothers with school age children were working part time compared to 14% of fathers, a 64 percentage point difference.
Most mothers not interested in working more
A survey showed that a majority (75%) of working mothers were either satisfied with the current situation (48%) or would prefer to work less (27%). Only 25% wanted to work more hours. Among the 20% not working, 82% would like to work and 18% wouldn’t. Overall, 36% of mums want more work and 64% are satisfied or want less work.
Barriers remain for those mothers wanting to work more
For the sizeable minority (36%) of mothers hoping to work more, barriers remain. Key ones include a punitive tax system, skewed parental leave and childcare challenges.
Switzerland taxes parents on their combined income. This pushes second incomes up into the higher tax brackets, penalising families with two working parents by taxing away an oversized share of second incomes.
Another impediment for working mothers is the small amount of paid parental leave for fathers. Currently, mothers get 14 weeks and fathers 2. The gap between the two favours compromising mothers’ employment over fathers’.
One solution to this is to move to a shared pool of parental leave that can be freely divided between mothers and fathers. Such a system solves the problem of one group (dual income families) disproportionately benefiting from something that everyone, including families with one working parent, pays for. A parliamentary commission advised moving to such a system as a way to solve the bias in the current system. Without this bias it may have been politically possible to discuss increasing leave. However, the idea was rejected by too many politicians in favour of adding separate paternity leave, a system favouring dual income families. As many expected, separate paternity leave was negotiated down to 2 weeks by opponents concerned by the additional cost and the bias against single income families. Then on 27 September 2020, it was accepted by voters in a referendum.
Access to childcare is another key challenge. In Switzerland, school typically finishes at midday and resumes at 13:30. This causes a headache for many working parents. In addition, childcare is typically scarce and expensive.
Eying the economic benefits of a larger workforce, a potential solution to the shortage of skilled workers and ways to reduce Switzerland’s remaining gender inequality, the Federal Council wants to make it easier for those mothers who want more work to access it.
The Federal Council report aims to help working mothers in four broad areas: increase the availability of affordable childcare, encourage employers to offer more flexible family friendly work conditions, improve vocational education to aid reentry into the workforce and reduce the tax disincentives for second earners. In accepting the report, the Federal Council is publicly committing itself to making progress in these areas.
But there are some glaring omissions. The politically charged school lunch problem and possibility of pooled parental leave are not mentioned. Schools and teachers are resistant to the former and politicians, typically on the left, are resistant to pooled parental leave.
Another issue not addressed in the report is the large number of refugee women and mothers not working. Seven years after arriving in Switzerland, only 30% of refugee women aged 16 to 55 have paid employment. A lack of education seems to be connected with this – only 34% of women arriving before the age of 17 have more than a school education after 5 years in Switzerland, compared to 53% of men.