For the first time ever, the Swiss Employers' Association and two of Switzerland's most prominent family policy organisations have joined forces in a bid to make combining work and parenthood easier.
Pro Familia, Pro Juventute, and the Swiss Employers' Association said their cooperation was an important step towards changing family policy in Switzerland.
The three organisations are calling for greater flexibility in working hours, better provision of childcare, and a commitment to allowing part-time workers to develop their careers.
The organisations described their cooperation as "a milestone", since they have traditionally been on opposing sides over such issues as a national system of maternity leave.
But now Swiss business leaders say they realise that the way they run their companies will have to change to reflect changes in family structures.
"We have to recognise that the traditional family in which the father goes out to work and the mother stays at home is just not so common any more," said Fritz Blaser, president of the Employers' Association. "And we as employers want to hang on to good staff after they become parents."
The number of women who work in Switzerland has been growing steadily over the past few years; over 70 per cent of Swiss women with only one child now work, and more and more women are returning to work when their children reach school age.
But the infrastructure to support working women has not kept pace. Switzerland lags behind other European countries in its provision of child care, and most Swiss schools continue to have irregular class schedules, meaning that children are coming and going at different times each day.
Lucrezia Meyer Schatz, general secretary of Pro Familia, stressed that the new proposals should not be seen merely as ways of helping working women.
"This is about helping families," said Schatz. "Both mothers and fathers deserve more flexibility in the work place, and I think companies are finally beginning to realise that they have to offer family friendly conditions in order to keep good people in their jobs."
One of the most important areas in which Pro Familia, Pro Juventute and the Swiss Employers' Association have reached agreement is in the area of tax. All three groups say they support new proposals, which would ease the tax burden on families.
Nevertheless, deep differences remain, above all over the best ways to make combining work and family easier. Pro Familia and Pro Juventute would like initiatives on a national level, while the Swiss Employers' Association believes the move for change should come from the private sector.
And the groups are still divided over maternity leave and child support. Pro Familia and Pro Juventute are still pushing for national legislation to guarantee these benefits, while the Swiss Employers' Association has said it will oppose them.
"We wouldn't be very good organisations if we didn't have some differences,' said Schatz. "But the fact remains that we have a commitment from employers to encourage more family friendly policies in the workplace. Now we have to see how deep that commitment goes."
As a first step to assessing the will of employers to make things easier for working parents, Pro Familia will be distributing a questionnaire to 4,500 businesses in Switzerland, in order to assess just how family friendly they are at the moment.
Employers will be asked, among other things, to provide details on what sort of maternity leave they offer, whether they give financial support to local nurseries, and what sort of career encouragement they give to part-time workers.
Meanwhile the Employers' Association itself plans to distribute a leaflet of "helpful tips" to its members, pointing out ways in which the lives of workers with children can be made easier.
"Of course our workers are important to us,' said Blaser. "It will be good for the economy to encourage more women back into the workplace, and above all it's clear that our plan to make it easier to combine work and family reflects the wishes of Swiss parents."
by Imogen Foulkes