Equal pay is still far from a reality in Switzerland – despite the principle being enshrined in law. Men earn on average SFr1,747 ($1,609) more per month than women.This content was published on June 23, 2009 - 08:55
The authorities, as well as employers' representatives and unions, have joined together for the first time to begin discussions aimed at stamping out discriminatory practices over the next five years.
The concept of equal pay has been written in the law since 1996, and has been in the Swiss constitution since 1981. But those working in the field say that progress has been slow.
According to the "Towards wage equality – facts and trends" brochure, published
by the Federal Gender Equality Office and the Federal Statistics Office, women working in the private sector earned an average 24 per cent less than their male colleagues in 2006. This is roughly on a par with other European countries.
For women in upper management the pay gap rose to 31 per cent.
"The gap between men and women's wages gets bigger the higher you go up, that means we have made progress for lower wages, but we have not made visible progress for higher wages," Patricia Schulz, director of the equality office, told swissinfo.ch.
"So it means in other words that the investment that women make in higher education doesn't pay as much as for men."
In all, 60 per cent of the difference between men and women's salaries can be explained by factors such as the level of posts held, or part-time working. But 40 per cent was found to be due to discrimination.
"Like in lots of countries, there are traditional views of the value of women's work and men's work and we're still stuck with these stereotypes," Schulz explained.
"When you look at the various economic branches of employment, you see that the salaries are higher in technical professions, where there are more men, than in the social professions where you have far more women."
One of the equality office's jobs is to inform employers and employees about equality law.
"Legally women have the right to total equality in employment, including wages. What we don't have is a control system by the state. In our system it is up to every woman who thinks she is discriminated against to act herself and that's a limit in the strength of the legislation," Schulz said.
"But that's why we have been developing instruments so that we can help people apply this law correctly."
Indeed, an equality office survey found that many women were too afraid of losing their jobs or of making a stand to fight discrimination.
Equal pay dialogue
To speed up the implementation of fair wages for all, an "equal pay dialogue" has been started, which includes the Federal Gender Equality Office, the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs, the justice ministry, as well as the main employers' organisations and trade unions.
The aim is to eliminate wage discrimination within five years.
Under the project, announced in March, firms are invited to review their salary systems on a voluntary basis and to join up to an equal pay dialogue that functions in accordance with the social partners.
For the Swiss Trade Union Federation, which is involved in the scheme, the development is welcome.
"This is a big step, a milestone that all the social partners, the employers and employees, sit together for a joint project," Christina Werder, in charge of gender equality at the union, told swissinfo.ch.
Fighting for rights
The union has long been fighting for fair pay and the principle that there should be an equal salary for work of the same value.
"This means that, for example, a nurse's work is accorded the same value as that of a policeman. So it's not just a case of saying that policewomen and policemen should be paid the same," Werder said.
Some women have taken up the fight. In February, midwifery teachers at a Bern college, upon discovering that their colleagues at a technical college in nearby Biel were earning more, won the right to have their salaries increased.
For Schultz, there is hope in the equal pay debate.
"We observe that this gender gap is narrowing slowly, it has been narrowing in the past 15-20 years and in every field of employment, and the awareness that companies must pay equal wages is growing, even if it is not yet completely satisfactory," she told swissinfo.ch.
"But I think it is a long haul and you have to keep at it."
Isobel Leybold-Johnson, swissinfo.ch
Around 6 out of 10 women of working age work part time (57%) in Switzerland, compared with 1 in 8 men or 12%.
Women are very underrepresented in the upper management echelons. Only 3% are part of boards of Swiss companies on the stock exchange.
In general, women earn 24% less than men.
Around 40% of this difference is estimated to be due to discrimination. Women in upper management earn 31% less than men.
Source: "Towards wage equality – facts and trends"
1971: Women get the right to vote (before that it had always been rejected by male voters).
1981: The principle of equal rights for women and men enshrined in the Swiss constitution.
1991: National women's strike – women went onto the streets to demand more rights at work and in the home.
1996: The Federal Law on Equality between Women and Men came into force.
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