UN urges Switzerland to improve gender equality

The negative portrayal of ethinic minority women in Switzerland is damaging, says the UN Keystone

Deep-rooted patriarchal attitudes and stereotypes about the roles of men and women in society are impeding gender equality in Switzerland, a United Nations committee has declared.

This content was published on November 18, 2016 minutes
switzerland with agencies

Switzerland has been defending its gender equality record and the situation of women in the small alpine nation before a UN committee in Geneva.

Summing up, the panel of UN experts said on Friday it welcomed Swiss progress since the last report in 2009. It praised legislative reforms such as the 2013 law against forced marriages, an article in the Criminal Code banning female genital mutilation and the creation of institutions and a policy framework aimed at accelerating the elimination of discrimination against women and promoting gender equality.

But their 18-page report highlighted numerous concerns and recommendations. It said Swiss efforts to implement the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), ratified to date by 189 States, had been implemented unevenly across the country and there was limited awareness of the treaty and rights among lawyers and judges, and even women themselves.

Overall, Switzerland needed to develop a ‘comprehensive national gender strategy’, it said.

Progress on gender equality is impeded by ‘prevailing stereotypes about the roles and responsibilities of women and men in the family and in society, along with deep-rooted patriarchal attitudes’, the panel declared.

“Stereotyped and sexualized images of women continue to be depicted in the media and advertisements; and these stereotyped media portrayals and negative images of ethnic minority women and migrant women undermine their ability to integrate into society.”

“In the workplace women are concentrated in lower-paid service sectors and in temporary and part-time work due to their traditional role as caregivers for children,” it went on.

Workplace barriers

The panel highlighted concerns about ‘structural barriers and gender bias’ that led to fewer female parliamentarians in the House of Representatives (32% of members) and Senate (15%) and in extra-parliamentary commissions. And also fewer women on executive boards and in other top management and decision-making positions.

According to a recent survey, the proportion of women on the boards of directors of the 100 largest Swiss companies rose from only 13% in 2014 to 16% in 2016. Women occupy only 6% of executive-board positions, a figure that has not changed since 2013. The number of female university professors and judges is also low, the panel added.

“Switzerland still lacks affordable childcare facilities, family friendly working models and paternity leave,” it declared. “The prevailing gender wage gap in both the public and private sectors continues to impact negatively on women’s career development and pension benefits.”

On average, women’s pension benefits in Switzerland are 37% lower than men’s.

“Integrated approach”

Sylvie Durrer, director of the Federal Office of Gender Equality, admitted that on the job market women continued to face stereotypes and discrimination that “hinder their ability to find a job and build a career”.

But she defended Switzerland’s overall record, arguing the country had a “firm commitment to gender equality”. “Our measures are not remarkable but have the benefit of forming an integrated approach,” she told the panel.

But pay differences exist and are hard to narrow. The latest figures show that on average men are paid 6.5% more than women in the public sector and 8.7% more in the private sector [2012 figures].

Despite this, the Swiss government has included fighting pay discrimination in its programme for the 2016-19 legislative period, said Durrer. Cantons and communes have also signed up to a charter for equal pay in the public sector, agreeing to raise awareness and monitor compliance.

Durrer argued that mentalities were changing among private firms. Although most companies had not reviewed pay practices, she believes they recognise the importance of the issue and are open to more restrictive measures. The government recently decided to oblige companies with 50 or more employees to conduct a pay-gap analysis every four years and to submit it for review. But it remains voluntary with no sanctions.

And as self-regulation in companies has not resulted in a gender balance in management positions, the government has initiated a consultation on a draft bill to revise Swiss company law and to set gender threshold-values for senior-executive positions in listed companies. Under the proposal, women should make up at least 30% of posts on boards of directors.

No quotas

To rectify gender imbalances at work the panel suggested ‘targeted recruitment’ measures or ‘time-bound goals and quotas’ in areas where women are underrepresented or disadvantaged in both the public and private sectors.

But Durrer cautioned that the Swiss would likely not accept quotas in the workplace. Thirty years ago there was a popular referendum on the issue and it was rejected by the vast majority of Swiss voters, she said.

“Quotas are a blunt tool and not adapted to Switzerland’s situation,” she added.

Elsewhere, the committee welcomed efforts to address gender based violence in Switzerland but said it remained concerned about the high prevalence of violence against women (with 3,173 assaults against women in 2011, compared to 948 against men), domestic violence and stalking. The under-reporting of gender-based violence to the police and low prosecution and conviction rates resulted in impunity for perpetrators, it argued.

It said more shelters and victim services should be available in all cantons. And Switzerland should ratify the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (known as the Istanbul Convention) ‘as a matter of priority’.

Durrer said Switzerland hoped to ratify the Istanbul Convention by 2018 while the federal bill on improving protection for victims of violence would be submitted to Parliament in 2017.

NGO shadow report

A group of Swiss non-governmental organisations known as the ‘NGO Coordination post Beijing Switzerland’ published a shadow report on the situation of women in Switzerland on October 30.

It said CEDAW was “not a reality in Switzerland”: “The underrepresentation in decision-making bodies, the remaining stereotypes, unequal pay, the unfair tax system, poverty, violence against girls and women are the issues that we feel need to be implemented most urgently in order to achieve de facto equality or that still require major changes”.

“Of course we achieve progress, but it always depends where you are starting from and where you're getting to,” Vivian Fankhauser-Feitknecht, a Lucerne judge who leads the NGO group, told “Switzerland is very traditional. That's good in some ways but we are also stuck in the old-fashioned ways.”

“I think there are changes but other things have stagnated,” said Salome Lienert from Terre des Femmes. “Political participation is at the same level…issues that did advance from the last report are laws on forced marriage which have greatly improved and female genitalia mutilation and work done on domestic and partner violence. But there are still problems with unequal pay and participation and issues that are linked with immigration. Not as much progress as you'd wish in a country like Switzerland.”

End of insertion

Articles in this story

In compliance with the JTI standards

In compliance with the JTI standards

More: SWI certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative

Contributions under this article have been turned off. You can find an overview of ongoing debates with our journalists here. Please join us!

If you want to start a conversation about a topic raised in this article or want to report factual errors, email us at

Share this story

Change your password

Do you really want to delete your profile?