​It actually sounds quite simple: «Men and women have equal rights». This basic principle has been established in the Federal Constitution since 1981, and the Gender Equality Act (GEA) of 1996 sets out detailed provisions. Various agencies and organisations raise awareness about gender issues, and around one thousand people have so far taken legal action against discriminatory practices. Nevertheless, there are still inexplicable differences between the sexes when it comes to wage levels, training and promotion. Why is this? And what can be done to eliminate these differences?

Not the whole picture

In May 2018, the Federal Office for Gender Equality (FOGE) received the UN Public Service Award for Switzerland’s commitment to equal pay. But this is not the whole picture: in the same year Parliament passed a law requiring companies to carry out wage equality analyses, since they had proven unwilling to do so on a voluntary basis.

These two events show how, even 23 years after the introduction of the GEA, the situation regarding gender equality is still not clear-cut. And yet the foundations were laid as far back as 1981, by the popular initiative ‘Equal Rights for Men and Women’. Following this initiative, female kindergarten teachers in Basel won their fight for equal pay, which led to similar successes in other professions and in other cantons. 1986 was marked by another milestone, when Judith Stamm, member of the National Council for the CVP, proposed the creation of the Federal Office for Gender Equality. This authority began operating the very same year. And it had its work cut out.

CVP National Council member Judith Stamm fought for the creation of the Federal Office for Gender Equality in the 1980s.

All good things come to those who wait

In 1994, Green Party MP Cécile Bühlmann’s negative reformulation of the German saying «All good things come to those who wait» expressed the anger and impatience that united women’s organisations from across the political spectrum. The gender pay gap still existed; it was statistically demonstrable, but not explained. When the National Council debated the draft of the Gender Equality Act, there was still some discussion about whether such a piece of legislation was really necessary.

Judith Stamm, speaking on behalf of the committee, said that the law should «as a matter of course» give detail to the ban on discrimination and protect the rights of those affected. However, not all women saw it that way. The FDP-member Suzette Sandoz rejected the proposal, claiming that it restricted freedoms, and was even unconstitutional, since it encroached on the sovereignty of the cantons. Elisabeth Zölch from the SVP supported the bill: «The goal is far from being reached. From a legal point of view, this legislation is essential.»
Parliament rose to the call. In 1996 the GEA passed into law.

Hopes fulfilled?

Despite the 18 articles of the new GEA, it was still not easy to combat discrimination. Employees in the private sector who tried to defend their rights soon found themselves without a job. In 2002 SP National Council member Vreni Hubmann presented a motion in Parliament designed to prevent revenge dismissals. But the National Council only agreed to examine the issue. As a result, four years later, the government drew up the first impact report on the GEA. It wrote: «In principle, the law has proven effective; class actions in typical women’s occupations have changed the cantons’ wage structures. However, the conclusion of the working group that conducted the investigation is more sobering, if not to say shocking: in the private sector, the average wage gap has barely closed, and the fear of dismissal discourages many from filing a wage complaint. Moreover, raising an objection about sexual harassment usually means losing one’s job.»
«A long and wearying process» is how Judith Stamm described achieving actual gender equality in 1994. The subsequent years have confirmed this.

Unexplained pay gap: current figures from the Federal Office for Gender Equality

Deeply rooted gender stereotypes

In 2016, the experts once again produced a critical report. They cited numerous reasons why the enforcement of the GEA left much to be desired: complainants have to reveal their identity, litigation can be expensive, and courts of first instance recognise too many reasons to justify differences in pay. In addition, discrimination is often indirect and unconscious, being based on old gender stereotypes that permeate our culture.

The Federal Council concluded that the framework conditions must change. For organisations representing the interests of employees, this means greater wage transparency. The Federal Council decided that the onus was on companies to provide this.

Federal Councillor Simonetta Sommaruga in the National Council chamber on 3 December 2018: «99.1 per cent of all companies in Switzerland are not required to conduct an equal pay analysis.»

Compulsory wage analysis

«The debate about equal pay – initiated by the social partners and the Confederation – has not led to the desired results,» admitted Federal Councillor Alain Berset in 2016. The Federal Council therefore wanted companies with more than 50 employees to conduct a wage analysis every four years. The ensuing debate in the National Council was animated, with some claiming that greater wage equality would encourage more women to re-enter the labour market and so benefit the economy, whilst others feared that the measures would create too much red tape. In the end, Parliament voted in favour of the bill, but raised the threshold from 50 to 100 employees. This means that under one per cent of companies are now required to conduct a wage analysis, but 46 per cent of the workforce are affected. Companies that fail to submit figures do not face sanctions of any kind, yet Federal Councillor Simonetta Sommaruga is confident that «the transparency demanded by the law is already having an effect».

The debate in the National Council swayed between scepticism and optimism – like many discussions on this topic. Susy Stauber-Moser, head of the Zurich arbitration authority, said back in 2015: «I am confident that the pay gap between men and women will narrow.» Only to add: «We will need the GEA for a long time to come.»


The Logib IT tool makes it easier to conduct a wage analysis.