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Sunday's vote: boosting the number of women in public office

Switzerland, like most countries, has far fewer women than men in public office. On Sunday, the Swiss will be voting on proposals to boost their numbers by introducing quotas for women in government, parliament and the federal administration.

This content was published on March 7, 2000 - 10:21

Switzerland, like most countries, has far fewer women than men in public office. On Sunday, the Swiss will be voting on proposals to boost their numbers by introducing quotas for women in government, parliament and the federal administration.

If accepted, the proposals would make Switzerland the first country in Europe where the proportion of women in the administration is laid down by law. However, analysts say the plans are unlikely to be adopted.

The catalyst for the vote came in 1993, when parliament voted against the official Social Democratic candidate for one of the cabinet posts, who was a woman, in favour of a male colleague.

The anger sparked by that snub, apparently on purely sexist grounds, was what started the controversial referendum drive. On March 12, the Swiss will be asked whether they want the cabinet to include at least three women, and whether at least four out of every ten members of the Federal Court in Lausanne should be female.

Margrit Meier of the Swiss trade union federation, strongly supports the quota-initiative. "This country is very familiar with the notion; we have quotas for cantonal representation in parliament, we have quotas for party-participation in the government - so why not quotas for women?"

Experts predict that equal gender-distribution will be achieved naturally within about 50 years. But those in favour of the quotas initiative argue that it is still too long to wait. They say measures to narrow the gender gap should be taken now.

Currently, less than a quarter of the legislature is female, and the seven-member cabinet comprises only two women. However, Ursula Haller, of the People's Party, says implementing quotas is not the solution.

"I also feel more women should take part in the decision-making process in Switzerland, but having quotas is simply undemocratic," she says.

Opponents also argue that measures other than quotas would be much more effective in increasing women's presence in politics. Haller says the Swiss would do better to create more day-care centres for working mothers, for example. But many in the pro-quota camp say there is little chance of that happening, unless more women enter decision-making bodies, and soon.

Government and parliament are urging the Swiss to reject the initiative, saying it would restrict their freedom of choice, and could result in men having to give up their legitimately-obtained seats if quotas were not met. Other critics say such legislation would result in weak candidates being put forward simply to fill numbers.

Meier accepts this, but denies it would make things any different to the way they function now. "That already happens! Filling numbers has always been done, and it will always be the best who will get the vote."

Even those pushing for women's quotas acknowledge the referendum is unlikely to obtain a majority on Sunday, and say it may be little early for Switzerland to take such a big step towards equality.

By Juliet Linley

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