Why part-time work is a costly compromise for women in Switzerland
Women in Switzerland, not just mothers, are drawn to part-time work. This choice is almost twice as common in Switzerland as in the European Union but taking the part-time path comes at a price, Clare O’Dea writes. Is it worth it?
Part-time work is more popular than ever in Switzerland.
Just over 18 percent of working men are part-timers as opposed to 58.6 percent of working women. This makes Switzerland a special case in the region considering that 30 percent of employed women and only 8 percent of men in the EU work part time.
You’d like to think that these 58.6 percent of working women in Switzerland know what they’re doing, that they’ve weighed up the options and made a free choice. But what I see is mothers in particular being pushed into the part-time trap from which it is very difficult to climb out again.
On an online forum for immigrant mothers with Swiss partners, I recently followed an intense discussion about the challenges of returning to work after maternity leave or a longer career break to care for children. The women were really stressed by the problem of finding the right childcare and how they would deal with the logistics and the emotions of the first few weeks of the new routine.
There were dozens of stories and the women were being supportive of each other and giving advice, but not a single person mentioned the fathers’ role in this major life change. One thing, possibly the only thing, that would make the transition easier would be if the fathers handled it.
Why is it that mothers missing months or even years of paid work is totally normal but the idea that a father would miss a few weeks is unthinkable? Imagine a father taking a month off to acclimatise his child to the creche, deal with the mornings, the separation anxiety, the first sick days. Imagine the mother just getting ready and going out the door for an untroubled workday.
But there is no concept of parental leave, and truly sharing the burden is rare. The challenge of reconciling family and working life is fundamentally seen as the woman’s problem. It is her labour at home that is being replaced – therefore it is her problem. No wonder so few young mothers can consider full-time employment.
But by opting to work part time, women are kissing goodbye to much more than income. Because a lower percentage in employment means losing out in many concrete ways – from job security to pension provision. It means fewer opportunities for further education and career advancement. In their employers’ eyes, they are seen as useful up to a point but stripped of potential.
Part-time workers also tend to take on jobs below their qualification and experience level because that’s all they can get. This makes it difficult for women to re-enter full-time employment later at the same level they once took for granted.
It also means women create a role for themselves at home that is very difficult to replace. The hours of paid work decrease to be replaced by hours of unpaid work and home becomes a second workplace when the domestic burden falls to one person.
According to Switzerland's Federal Statistics Office Labour Force Survey, the total time spent on paid and unpaid work in 2020 was roughly 46 hours per week for both men and women. Women consistently spent more time on unpaid domestic and family work than men did.
There are some deeply ingrained attitudes that make this division of roles hard to avoid. The way the Swiss economy is structured, men are ‘naturally’ better at making money. They magically choose higher-earning jobs and magically rise higher in those jobs over time. Essentially, their role as breadwinners is respected and rewarded.
Everyone wants what’s best for their children and the message in Switzerland is that a mother’s care is the first and best choice, with father’s care tied with grandparents’ care viewed as the next best thing. Placing your child in the care of strangers is something people try to keep to a minimum.
This must have something to do with how families in the recent past who couldn’t manage financially were punished by losing custody of their children. Of course times have changed, but the ideal Swiss family is still one with an abundance of mother’s time and love, backed up by a decent income brought home by the father.
Not everyone conforms. Many families have found alternative models, either with both parents working part time or taking turns in the role of main earner as a way of keeping both careers on track. It would be nice to see these options gain popularity.
One of the main things that would make part-time work more of a free choice is – no surprise – more affordable childcare. Costs in Switzerland are among the highest in the OECD. The framing needs to change too. It’s important that parents view childcare as something that enables both of them to work, and is not just there to replace the mother’s presence.
On the surface, going along with traditional roles, where the woman does less paid work and more unpaid work, makes life easier for a family. They get social approval, (probably) a less stressful life and the structures to support the model. The man’s career and earning power is boosted by the cachet of being the main breadwinner and by the practical benefit of having someone covering the bases at home.
The arrangement looks less sensible in the case of a marriage break-up or widowhood but who goes through life, especially the blur of the child-raising years, expecting things to go so badly wrong?
For better or worse, it looks like Swiss society has latched onto the current model as a version of progress everyone can live with. Before Swiss women can lean in, Swiss men have to lean across and give them the space. For that to happen, both sexes have to want it. Time will tell if the appetite for change is there.