OPINION: Has anything improved for women in Switzerland in recent years?

Clare O'Dea
Clare O'Dea - [email protected]
OPINION: Has anything improved for women in Switzerland in recent years?
Women take part in a nation-wide women's strike for wage parity on June 14, 2019 in Swiss capital Bern. (Photo by STEFAN WERMUTH / AFP)

The 2019 women’s strike in Switzerland was hailed by organisers as the largest political action since the 1918 General Strike. As women in the country prepare to march again, Clare O’Dea asks what has been achieved since then?


June 14th, 2019 was a heady day for feminists in Switzerland, with a massive public show of support for the perennial aims of economic and social equality. At the 12,000-strong march I joined in Fribourg, the crowd shouted: “Sol, sol, sol – solidarité – avec les femmes du monde entier!”

Solidarity was the key word that day, and it made the march a joyful occasion, even if it did feel a bit harmless to be given the blessing of the powers-that-be to walk around the city on a beautiful day letting off steam. 

Gathering in numbers had the effect of revealing that the individual day-to-day struggles faced by women were in fact common, structural problems that could and should be fixed. The hope behind the chants was that the dream of equality could become a reality.

A woman holds a sign reading "Feminism = Equality" as she takes part in a nation-wide women's strike for wage parity outside the federal palace, on June 14, 2019 in the Swiss capital Bern. (Photo by STEFAN WERMUTH / AFP)

In the past, attempts to introduce change have often been piecemeal. Every decade has brought improvements but never the kind of breakthrough that would deliver a new deal between the sexes.

The last cry for change on the streets of Swiss cities did bring one badly-needed ingredient to the Swiss women’s movement – momentum. The fiftieth anniversary of the women’s vote in 2021 kept the energy going and this year’s demonstration will also help.

A few months after the 2019 strike, federal elections saw the largest ever share of women candidates elected to parliament.

Thanks partly to that groundswell of awareness, 41.5 per cent of seats in the in the 200-seat National Council and 26 per cent in the 46-seat Council of States went to women, the latter share less impressive but still a respectable jump from 15 per cent.

While party affiliation is more relevant than sex when it comes to voting tendencies of parliamentarians, the years since the 2019 action have also seen a deepening of the left-right split between male and female voters, with women voting increasingly leftwing across a range of issues, as reported last month by the NZZ newspaper.

Women hold signs and umbrellas as they take part in a nation-wide women's strike for wage parity outside the federal palace, on June 14, 2019 in the Swiss capital Bern. (Photo by STEFAN WERMUTH / AFP)

There’s no doubt that the march put women’s rights front and centre for a concentrated time and politicians wanted to be seen to be doing something. One result was the gender equality strategy, adopted by the Federal Council in April 2021. As the Swiss government’s first national strategy on gender equality, this feels important.

According to the government’s own statement: “Despite the fact that gender equality has been enshrined in the Federal Constitution since 1981, it is still not a reality in Switzerland.”

The strategy focuses on four central themes: equality in the workplace, work-life balance, preventing violence against women and girls, and fighting discrimination. An interim review of the strategy will be undertaken at the end of 2025, and 2030 is the target year for all the goals to be implemented.


At last, there is some parliament-led action on childcare. Moves are underway to subsidise childcare costs by 20 per cent in a package that would cost CHF 770 million. Recently approved by the National Council, this will later come before the Council of States. Employers are also behind the project.

We also had the introduction of two weeks’ paternity leave at the beginning of 2021, something for which new parents are obviously grateful, though it is minimal. Mothers are entitled to 14 weeks of paid statutory leave, also low by European standards.


Another long-awaited change has been achieved in the area of sexual violence. Swiss rape law, outdated and unfit for purpose, has finally been changed, with both chambers just agreeing on a new “no means no” definition of rape, along with higher minimum penalties and more sexual crimes being classified as rape. The new law also includes male victims.

READ ALSO: 13 key milestones in the fight for women's rights in Switzerland

As for the economy, the gender wage gap in Switzerland has not narrowed but tackling it is top of the list in the government’s strategy. Women still earn on average 18 per cent on average less than men. To draw attention to this problem, the march organisers have called for women to “strike” at 3.24pm on June 14, the hour at which they stop earning, in comparison to their male colleagues.

About half this difference can apparently be explained by objective factors such as professional status or years of service, what many see as a motherhood deficit. The government agrees that the rest cannot be explained by objective factors and that discrimination against women is potentially involved.


The structural differences between male and female professional careers include the fact that women are more likely to work in low-paid sectors. These issues are impossible to fix from the bottom up, as the progress achieved at the other end of the career ladder shows.

Women have been making inroads into boardrooms since 2019, directly because of quotas introduced that year. According to the latest annual report by Guido Schilling, 2022 was a bumper year with the share of women at board of director level in Switzerland’s largest 100 companies rising from 26 % to 29%. The gender gap in executive teams also narrowed.

Many women, comfortable in their own situations, resent women being portrayed as victims. The argument heard on some parts of the right is that equality is there for the taking in Swiss society and that women may freely choose their paths. 

For these women, and those who feeling marching isn’t the Swiss way of resolving things, this march is unwelcome. Some dislike the way other political issues, such as a protest about police violence in Lausanne, have been tied to the women’s cause.

Whatever your stance on the strike, there is no doubt that the previous demonstration in 2019 and the original one in 1991 gave women a voice and put the focus on reform that benefits all. This year, as women call for “respect, time, money”, the momentum will be maintained.


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