Gender equality: less inequality, many contradictions, complex dependencies


A concluding summary by the president to mark the end of the National Research Programme NRP 60

Since the 1980s, a variety of political programmes, strategies and measures have pursued the aim of achieving equal opportunities for men and women in Switzerland. NRP 60 offered the opportunity to review the various gender equality activities in Switzerland of the last few decades and highlight not only progress but also persisting inequalities.

In education, the gap in qualifications achieved by young women and men at secondary-school and university level has narrowed, which constitutes an important step towards gender equality. Despite this success, there has been little change in educational aspirations: young women are over-represented in general knowledge subjects while young men dominate in technical and scientific subjects. Young men, in particular, may encounter derision from their peers if they want to pursue a "typically female" education or career. What's more, young women who wish to have children continue to train for professions which allow for part-time work and career interruptions, whereas men's choice of career is still largely informed by the notion of "bread winner" and life-long working. The projects of NRP 60 also highlight that parents, heads of schools, teachers and career advisors fail to question sufficiently the gender connotations of education and career choices. Despite many years of activism, text books at school and toys in nurseries still carry strong gender-stereotypical connotations.

The situation is similarly complex in the job market: during the last two decades, the labour force participation of women in Switzerland, particularly of mothers, has risen significantly. The labour participation of women in Switzerland is one of the highest in Europe. However, NRP 60 shows that labour market opportunities of men and women remain far from equal despite this great achievement. It is rare to find men or women in "gender-atypical" jobs and positions or with atypical work-time percentages. In addition, the large pay gap and different wage developments of men and women persist. Even for first jobs there is an inexplicable 7% gender wage gap that is often accentuated as careers progress. It was also noted that women with few qualifications and women in the second half of their working life are often overlooked in gender equality politics. In working environments, women over 50 are often not considered for courses and measures related to age management.

The compatibility of family, education and work has also enjoyed political priority in recent years. As a result, child care services have been expanded throughout Switzerland and families with children now pay less tax. But as in other areas, the research results of NRP 60 also highlight persisting challenges: paid and unpaid work continues to be distributed unequally. To this day, women do most of the often unpaid care work for the young and the old that is of crucial importance to society. In addition, there are large discrepancies between cantons with regard to child care services, particularly in the pre-school years, and the overall costs of child care in Switzerland are very high. The researchers also noted a shortage of day care facilities, as a half-way solution between in-patient care and care at home, as well as low wages in care jobs: the increasing number of women from third countries doing care work in private households are barely protected against precarious and under-regulated working conditions. In addition, analyses conducted by NRP 60 showed that there is a continued lack of family-friendliness in companies. In practice, measures for improving the compatibility of family and career are too often directed at women and rarely include men. And only very few companies have measures in place to support care duties that arise in later stages of life.

In the area of social security, numerous political reforms such as the revision of the AHV or the private pension system have aimed to improve gender equality in old age. However, a number of shortcomings have been identified in this area too: NRP 60 shows that the inequalities of traditionally "female" education and careers are accentuated over the course of a lifetime. To this day, women’s biographies typically include limited education, few professional qualifications, unpaid work in care or family businesses (e.g. in farming), interrupted careers and low wages; this reduces their capability of providing for their old age and ensuring social security: provisions for loss of earnings due to unemployment, illness or age are closely associated with an uninterrupted, full-time working life. For this reason, women in Switzerland are often in a worse financial position as they reach retirement age or if they experience a crisis, and they have to depend on supplementary benefits of the AHV or on support from social services to make ends meet. In many households and families there is a growing interest in labour market participation by both partners as well as a growing economic need for both to work, but married couples with a high work-time percentage are even made to pay higher taxes by some cantons and by the federal government.

Much remains to be done

NRP 60 highlights complex mechanisms – including social measures and norms – that have played a part in preventing gender equality policies from being more successful than is presently the case. The results also suggest that the chances of equality are determined at crucial moments in life, influenced by the expectations and functional logic of different parts of society. To address the complexity of cause and effect, gender equality measures need to be comprehensive in their design by taking account of the biographical moment and the functioning and requirements of different parts of society. This means: gender equality policy needs to address stereotypical concepts of masculinity and femininity, the seemingly self-evident structures of professional and private lives, the cultural assumptions regarding work as well as the premises of political action, if it is to achieve greater freedom for "atypical" choices of women and men.

Professor Brigitte Liebig
President of the Steering Committee of NRP 60

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