Monday, November 14, 2016

Gender gap in Switzerland : when bad results lead to positive legislative changes

The World Economic Forum (WEF) publishes a yearly report on gender gaps. The countries covered in the report get a rank and a country profile. I first heard about the reports when I attended Saadia Zahidi's the WEF's leader on gender parity TEDxWomen talk in Lausanne last year. Her TEDx talk is a great way to learn about how the WEF evaluates the Global Gender Gap and other disparities (video available here).

In the past month, women in Europe stopped working earlier than scheduled in a symbolic gesture to denounce the wage disparity in their country (further information on this in the blog post Mind the gap). Sadly, a new trend of  western countries experiencing deterioration in their overall gender equality situation seems to emerge.

Switzerland was number 8 out of 145 countries in the WEF 2015 Gender Gap Index.  We could argue that this ranking is not that bad, especially since it was number 26 back in 2006. However, Switzerland's overall gender inequality is worse in 2016 than in 2015. The country's rank is now 11 out of 144. The fact that gender inequality is actually worsening in this mostly privileged developed country is truly preoccupying.

A particular area of concern for me is the salary equality. The principles of equal pay for equal work and the prohibition of discrimination based on gender are enshrined in the Swiss Federal Constitution since 1981, as well as in in the Gender Equality Act since 1996. However, despite the legal principle, Swiss women still earn on average between 15 and 20 percent less than their male colleagues, according to The Local. Moreover, a recent and alarming Glassdoor survey found that 1 in 10 Swiss men do not think that men and women should be paid equally.

The Gender Equality Act (GEA) has been in force for 20 years. Yet the gap is still widening. The new WEF report caused great shock and media coverage in Switzerland. Consequently, the Swiss Government proposed a modification of the GEA on October 26th. In a press statement, the Federal Council
announced plans to make companies with at least 50 employees conduct the reviews of their pay policies – which would be checked by an external auditor. Following a consultation period, it has been decided to put that plan to parliament next summer.
Half of the parties involved in the consultation had come out in favour of the idea. But most had disagreed with the plan to publically name and shame companies with pay inequalities. Cabinet has therefore agreed to shelve that part of the plan in its bill (
In September 2016, a member of the Federal Council launched a nonbinding Charter for equal salary in the Swiss public employment sector. So far, the Swiss Government, as well as 10 cantons (a canton is equivalent to a US state) and 15 communes signed the Charter. Signatories agree to inform their employees about the GEA thoroughly, to regularly analyze the salaries, to introduce control mechanisms and to inform the public as well as the Federal Bureau for Equality about their results and data. When introducing the Charter, Alain Berset, head of the Federal Department of Home Affairs, expressed his convincing belief that
The public sector must be an example when it comes to salary equality (The Local)
Initially, the WEF 2016 report made me reconsider Swiss laws and policies in a new light. I was disappointed and concerned by the results and the worsening of gender inequalities. However, I am now pleasantly surprised by the Swiss Government, which took steps in response to the WEF report. It is even more surprising because it usually takes a lot of time for legislative change to happen in Helvetia. Public entities taking a stance this quickly is a good sign and, hopefully, they will indeed be an example for the private sector.

The Swiss people will probably have to vote on the GEA revision in the coming year, which means that the media and politicians will extensively discuss gender equality prior to the popular vote. It makes me hopeful because the authorities and media could easily have ignored the new WEF evaluation. Of course, the way toward equality is still long, but the Swiss authorities seem to take steps in the right direction. Will employers do the same?


Julie Maguire said...


Thank you for such an informative post of the position of working women in Switzerland. I am very disheartened to learn that such a progressive nation seems to have made such an unfortunate digression with regards equality.

However, all hope is not lost. In the U.S. the average female worker earns a mere 80 cent to every dollar earned by a man (please see < >). While this is an utter disgrace, there are a number of cities across the country that are in a position where women, on average, earn more than men. These cities are acknowledged in this enlightening Huffington Post article; < >. I will admit that, while the differences for some cities are negligible, they exist nonetheless and that is something to be celebrated and encouraged.

Kyle Kate Dudley said...


I think this is a wonderfully important topic onto the Blog! I often love Swiss policy, but this is more impressive than most. I really like the idea of external auditors reviewing the pay policies of medium and large companies. Though it has been shelved for a parliament decision in the summer, I think the plan itself sheds light on the terribly troubling issue of the pay gap. I also love the public sector leading the way on commitments to pay equality. The US should take note.

Thank you for this great post!