A couple of weeks ago, my sister in law and her 2.5-year-old visited. As all 2.5-year-olds do when they are away from home, he came down with a high fever (40.3 Celsius, or 104.5 Fahrenheit). So, my kids’ pediatrician agreed to see him on short notice. We’ve been going there since we moved here, 9 years ago, and long before I spoke any German.

Because my sister-in-law doesn’t speak any German, I filled out the paperwork. It was pretty standard until I came to the part about the parents. It asked:

  • Father’s name
  • Father’s birthdate
  • Father’s occupation

and then

  • Mother’s name
  • Mother’s birthdate
  • Mother’s former occupation

Because, of course, mom couldn’t be currently working, right?

I shared this story on one of my Facebook expat groups and several other women who live in Switzerland piped up. One wasn’t allowed to be the primary renter on an apartment–her husband had to be–even though her husband was a stay at home dad and she was the one working. Another noted that their apartment rental agreement had asked for the husband’s (or male partner’s) occupation followed by wife’s (or female partner’s) occupation and added on a percent for the female. (No one says I work 20 hours a week here–if you’re not full time you talk about percent, so 20 hours a week would be 50 percent.)

Now, I for one, love that so many Swiss (and it’s mostly women) have the opportunity to work part-time. Anecdotally, I see a lot more professional part-time work available here than I ever did in the Us. (One I see often is 80 percent–which usually translates into a four day work week.) But it bugs me that that is the assumption. Which is kind of ironic because I, personally, work 50 percent. (Officially–lately it’s been creeping up to the 60-75 percent range, but I’m smashing it back down while my kids are on summer vacation.)

The other irony is that our pediatrician’s office is 100 percent female staffed. There are three pediatricians–all female, and two assistants (techs/receptionists), all female). While I haven’t had many conversations with two of the pediatricians, our main one (who I adore and think is fabulous) has multiple children and grandchildren. Incidentally, all three pediatricians work part-time, as does one of the assistants.

I’m sure one of the things that contributes to women working part-time or not at all is the school system. Children come home for lunch every day. And my son, who will be entering 5th grade in August, still only has afternoon school three days a week. Wednesdays and Thursdays he’s done at noon. While I think this is developmentally great for children, it’s a pain the behind for working parents.

Yes, you can find childcare for the two hours the kids are home for lunch.  Yes, it’s expensive. Some schools offer a “lunch table” so the kids don’t have to leave the school, but in others, you’re on your own.

I’ve wondered why Swiss women haven’t risen up in rebellion, but perhaps they like it. Women do value flexibility over money, so perhaps this system forces businesses to offer that flexibility if they want more employees. I’m not sure.

Regardless, for the record, my sister-in-law teaches English at a university in Turkey, where she lives. And she’s very good at it.

And my nephew is doing just fine. One of those random toddler fevers, undoubtedly caused by a virus.

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17 thoughts on “Swiss Sunday: Women’s Work

  1. It’s pretty fascinating. I’ve met German couple’s and they always brag about all the time they get off when they have kids. But what about single moms? Are they discriminated against when they rent? And how many hours are Swiss children educated? Do they get two and a half months off in the summer and several weeks off during the school year?

    1. I’ve heard single moms and single women, in general, are discriminated against.

      Swiss kids in our canton get 6 weeks off in the summer, 2 weeks in October, 1-2 weeks for Christmas (depending on the day of the week for Christmas), 2 weeks for Fasnacht (Mardi Gras, Swiss style), and 2 weeks for spring break. So 13-14 weeks in total. Their school day is shorter, though, so they are in school less than Americans.

    1. Malpractice isn’t a thing here. I mean, I’m sure if a doctor did something egregious there are remedies, but it’s not something on people’s minds.

      Additionally, university is free (but only open to the top 20 percent of students), and I presume medical school isn’t that expensive, although I’ve never looked into it. The point is, there’s not a tremendous amount of debt required to be a doctor.

      The other thing is that the insurance system is that you are responsible to pay your own bills and you submit them to the insurance company for reimbursement. (The hospital bills directly to the insurer, but for doctor’s offices, you get billed.) That means that the doctor’s office doesn’t need employees to handle insurance claims, which cuts down on a lot of costs, giving less overhead, meaning a physician can work fewer hours. My doctor doesn’t even have office staff. She answers her own phone.

  2. While I am glad to read about how women can be in flexible part-time professional careers in Switzerland, I was perturbed to see that question mentioned especially since it assumed that the woman’s financial role was based on a percentage of status to a full-time position, leaving out entirely like mentioned full-time stay at home fathers. Perhaps if the gender wording was removed entirely, the question would be less offensive, especially with more women in the workplace and more women are the head of household earners.
    When I was married, I was the head of the household because of the amount of income earned for taxable income, so I had to make sure I was classified as such in any paperwork to gain those benefits. I am surprised that even the Swiss are still old-fashion to women in things like this.

    1. Well, understand that Swiss women didn’t gain the right to vote in every canton until 1990.

      That’s not a typo (although heaven knows I make enough of them).

      An American friend of mine who is married to a Swiss and has lived her 40+ years says women didn’t care to vote because they were spending all their time cleaning. She’s only half joking when she says that.

      1. “An American friend of mine who is married to a Swiss and has lived her 40+ years says women didn’t care to vote because they were spending all their time cleaning. She’s only half joking when she says that.”
        Thank you for that laugh out loud moment. Cultural differences are amazing and wonderful even if they don’t align with our own.

  3. I just left Switzerland after living in Geneva for two years, and I’m glad to have moved on. It felt like a great place for families, but for a single woman, it was… ok, mostly, and unpleasant often.

    What struck me is that while the flexibility and the system are great, the expectations that go with it are not. Men, at least where I lived and worked, were not expected to let the arrival of children change their work hours or their commitment to their job. It was the moms’ job to drop off kids in the morning, pick them up later, go on 50 percent to be home to accommodate the school hours… The ability to scale hours up and down is actually really easy and the only barrier to more balanced use is the very patriarchal, conservative norms and expectations.

    I thought it was a fabulous system, if only men could take advantage of it as well. Instead, I felt it became a burden on women. In a lot ways, these expectations took choice away from women, even when they were the main earners…

    As a single woman living in Geneva, I got rejected three times when applying to apartments, because the owners didn’t think a single woman needed that much space, or they didn’t want parties (I don’t ‘party’), or they didn’t want a lot of random men in and out of the building that often… I was blown away by all these assumptions, and I’ll admit it colored the rest of my stay in Geneva.

    I’ve now moved to a country in the Middle East that defines ‘conservative’ and yet I’m finding more freedom of choice and more respect here than I ever did in Geneva… go figure…

    1. I’ve heard the French-speaking areas are worse than the German-speaking areas, but purely anecdotally.

    1. Thank you. And, it’s exactly the type of stereotype used to rationalize the gender-based differences in the questionnaires cited.

      1. But, “most”, whether or not it is academically supported, is exactly what a stereotype is. Honestly, most women like you, perhaps. But as a HM, I’m not going to make any assumptions about your needs and wants. I’m going to ask you.

      2. Flexibility *is* money, moreso than some other benefits, because flexibility is job security. Flexibility means that if your daycare changes mid-year, you can potentially change your start/finish time to accommodate that. It means that you can potentially take comp time when your kid is sick (or has kept you up three nights in a row), rather that eating into your PTO (and this year’s hope of a vacation). It means (sometimes) that you can work from home, to wait for the home-care appointments (handyperson, contractor, repairperson) or to watch a sick kid (who’s just going to lie there and watch teenage mutant ninja turtles, but still needs an adult).

        It goes to the “mental load” – women need these things, still, because they generally carry the mental load of the home and kids (if/when they have home and kids). They know they need these things. They look for these things. They value these things. Men (often) don’t know that they need these things and don’t value them, because it just magically gets taken care of, so don’t know to negotiate them, to look for them, and how valuable they are in the long-run.

        1. Bonnie, your explanation/clarification is amazingly clear and simple enough for even this ignorant guy to understand and recognize.
          Thank you!

  4. Wow. That is so offensive, the fact that there isn’t a huge outcry, protests, and backlash against these draconian practices surprises me… I think of Sweden as progressive, but when such blatant sexism is institutionalized both on doctor’s forms and rental agreements, it makes me think Sweden has a long way to go still in many areas. I mean, the U.S. does have a ways to go as well on MANY thing (HUGE sad sigh), but I’ve never encountered something like not allowing a married woman to be the primary renter or discriminatory written questions as part of a rental agreement, or bizarre things like that not on a doctor’s form. Heck, it would be all over social media. There’s be nasty emails, phone calls, protests, and probably a politician or two speaking out.

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