Bringing Swiss Women Back to Work by Shaking Up the Part-Time Model

By Pia TischhauserDaniel KesslerJulia Senser, and Benedikt Hess

In Switzerland today, an estimated 50,000 women with university degrees are not employed. With the lack of effective part-time and flexible-working models, many highly educated women become full-time mothers and homemakers after having children. The Swiss economy and society suffer from the absence of these women in the workplace—missing out on the benefits of their knowledge, expertise, and commitment.

The advantages of employing women are clear. They often contribute different perspectives and problem-solving approaches to discussions. Leadership teams made up of more than 30% women have been shown to deliver better, more sustainable results, and mixed-gender teams are more successful than teams comprised exclusively of men. Women not only help create a more professional and courteous working atmosphere but also have a more consensus- and solution-oriented leadership style.

Further, if companies could integrate well-educated Swiss women more effectively into the workforce, there would be less need to import international talent—and the government could see a return on its investment in their education and training (currently approximately CHF 5.75 billion, or $6 billion).

The Maternity Effect

The trigger for a woman’s exit from the workplace in Switzerland—or her move to a part-time position—is almost always the birth of the first child. Although some Swiss women consciously choose to take on the role of full-time parent, there are many well-educated women who would like to work in an interesting job with good career prospects after having children—but this is a difficult vision to shape.

Most Swiss companies do not offer an attractive working environment for those who want to temporarily reduce their working hours. And the part-time work offered to returning women is often less stimulating than their previous full-time positions were—or the compensation for the part-time job fails to reflect the actual workload. This situation is made worse by the inflexible hours of public day care centers—which mostly close by 6 pm—and the high costs of private day care or individual childcare.

Moving Away from a Traditional Mindset

A culture of “being seen” in the office plays a part, as well. Many Swiss employers still have a hard time accepting the idea of flexible hours or remote working and give little consideration to the needs of women—and men—in part-time roles. Further, one particularly Swiss challenge is the traditional notion of housewife and mother, still engrained in many members of the older generation. These expectations not only prevent women from choosing a lifestyle that includes a career but also keep men from seeking a part-time model that might support a more equal partnership in a marriage, with two careers existing in parallel.

Companies have been aware of this problem for some time, but perspectives among society and the culture in the workplace have changed little to date. To spark change, employers need to offer tailored solutions that will increase the loyalty of female employees. Flexible working hours and location give women the chance to increase their workload and still have time for their families.

Part-time work has to be appreciated and promoted more strongly if the model is to gain acceptance. Some companies are already taking action, but Swiss employers as a whole have fallen behind other countries in this respect. When part-time and other flexible working models become the norm in Switzerland—practiced by people at all levels, including in management positions—companies will be better prepared for future demographic shifts and for the desires of a younger generation, which places more value on flexible models for work and life.