Moving to Switzerland made me a better feminist

Living abroad allowed one woman to see how much she has benefited from feminism
By Alexandra DufresnePublished on 02/04/2019 at 10:44 AM EDT

This is a story about being late to the party.

For my first 43 years, I did not pay much attention to feminism. While I valued the movement abstractly, I was more concerned about justice for children and immigrants than about women’s rights per se. If this sounds like a position born of privilege, that is because it is.

That changed in 2016, when my family moved to Switzerland.

From the outset, female friends in Switzerland told me about experiences with gender discrimination, including times they had been bullied or demoted at work after returning from maternity leave. Then for the first time in my life, I experienced sexism myself. What I endured was subtle, modest, and commonplace. But to me—someone for whom “the meritocracy” had always worked—it was crushing.

My first thought, after I got over the initial heartbreak, was “Oh, so that’s what people meant.”  All of a sudden the stories I had heard from women in both countries made perfect sense, as did my textbook reaction of self-blame, denial, surprise, shame, indignation, and more shame. I was acutely aware of how privileged I was to have been oblivious for so long.

Wait, Switzerland?

To the outside world, Switzerland projects a modern image: excellent public transportation, cutting-edge scientific research, high-quality news media, extraordinary affluence, and a well-employed and multilingual population. So like many newcomers, I was caught off guard by the extent of the sexism.

I can sense some Swiss friends feeling defensive right about now, so let me be clear. According to some surveys, Switzerland ranks higher than the U.S. in terms of gender equality, though in other surveys the U.S. ranks higher. Three women, all without children, now serve on the seven-person Federal Council (their Executive branch), a tremendous accomplishment, especially given that Switzerland did not give women the right to vote until 1971. There are many powerful feminists in Switzerland who are leading #MeToo campaigns, strikes for wage equality and movements against gender-based violence. The majority of Swiss men I know, including many very supportive male colleagues, are committed to gender equality. I am not interested in debating the question of whether the U.S. or Switzerland is more unequal, because the question is largely unanswerable. It depends what exactly you are measuring, and for whom.

But, there is undeniably an anachronism in Switzerland, and that is the strict division of gender roles between fathers and mothers. Many public schools close at midday so that children can go home for lunch; elementary school-aged children often have one or two afternoons off. (Days off often vary by grade, so our first year here, my three children had four afternoons off between them). Accordingly, the overwhelming majority of mothers part-time. According to data from 2015, only about 14 percent of mothers with a partner and with children under the age of six work full-time (defined as 90-100 percent). Moreover, mothers with partners do not tend to transition back into full-time work when their children are older; indeed, less than 20 percent of them with children between 15 and 24 work full-time.

Unlike in the U.S., where part-time work can sometimes still carry substantial leadership opportunities, employers in Switzerland often assume that women who work less than 100 percent do not want to take on leadership positions that require extra responsibility, travel, or stress. The belief that motherhood is a woman’s first priority is so ingrained that women often lose leadership responsibilities they had long exercised when they return from maternity leave, whether they want to step back or not.

Mothers who insist that they do have significant professional ambitions confront a number of explicit and unconscious stereotypes and biases. They can be seen as arrogant, pushy, or unusual—qualities disfavored in Swiss culture. It is not uncommon for women with children to be asked why they would want to work full-time, or even at all, especially since many jobs that men hold pay well enough to support an entire family. (A neighbor recently asked my husband why I would want to work given that I had three children; when I signed up for an intensive German language course, the secretary asked me if I was sure I could handle it with three children; after a school conference, the principal of my son’s school wished my husband, who teaches at university, a good day back at work and me, who teaches at university, a good day “with the children.” It should be noted that all three were genuinely being kind). The assumption is that if a mother does well in a big job, she must be not doing such a good job with her children; giving a mother more responsibility at work is often seen as coming dangerously close to interfering with her family life.

As a result, “choosing”  between having children at all or having a high-profile career is a choice that some Swiss women—but not Swiss men—are forced to make. For example, when two more women recently joined the Federal Council (giving women three of the seven seats), all three readily acknowledged in an interview with the press that they likely could not have advanced as far as they did if they had had children. Very few professors at Switzerland’s top universities and very few CEOs or leaders in private industry are mothers. Indeed, only 14-16 percent of senior managers and Board Directors in Switzerland are women. In 2016, only 6 percent of senior board members of Swiss companies were women. (Data about which percentage are women with children are unavailable). In contrast, many men in leadership positions in Switzerland are fathers.

Conversations: Good and Bad

Behind closed doors, many Swiss women have told me that my experience here mirrors theirs exactly. Some have told me: “Please keep talking about this, as you as an outsider can say things we cannot.” Out of kindness, others have said, “Yes, this happened to me. But you can’t afford to be labelled as difficult: no more marches, just be quiet for a bit.”

Some minimize the extent of the problem. One successful woman without children explained to me that Switzerland is “not sexist, just traditional”—as if discrimination against women were in the same class of behavior as yodeling or cheese-making. Others argue—apparently without irony—that the fact that women without children are often successful means that Switzerland has moved beyond sexism. (And of course, some women with children are also very successful in Switzerland, but the question is whether they are the exception that proves the rule.) Still others note that certain behavior is not actually sexist because it is not intended as such, or because it is influenced by multiple factors. Of course, other factors are relevant and of course people usually don’t mean to be sexist! The relevant question is not: “Is intentional sexism the only reason this is happening?”, but rather, “Would this happen to a man?”

And some conversations have gone terribly awry all together. People that I respect are just not reading off the same script as I am. Whereas my script says “gender discrimination is costly and inefficient; talk about these issues and get ahead of the curve, so that we are all more productive,” their script says, “avoid conflict and maintain the status quo at all costs; we are plenty productive as we are, and by the way, you are being very difficult.” The problem, I am made to understand, is not the underlying sexism, but rather speaking aloud about it.

And now?

On bad days, I think about taking the “be quiet” advice. Given the choice between being feared or liked, I would much prefer to be liked. And as a newcomer to other people’s country—one that for historical reasons puts a premium on politeness, predictability and conflict avoidance—this desire to please, to not be the “ugly American,” is sometimes overwhelming.

But then I remember the generations of women who have been threatened with much worse than “unlikeability.” I think about my clients who have overcome challenges I cannot even imagine. And I tell myself it’s time to finally put on my big girl pants.

And so I am learning to accept my role as a “komplizierte Frau” (a “complicated or difficult woman”). I organize, march, raise money, work with NGOs, research, teach, write, talk with reporters, and encourage other women to speak up. I have difficult conversations with people I like; I risk being feared but unliked. Above all, when other people share stories of the discrimination they have experienced, I listen.  

To everyone who has been working on these issues for a long time, I am very sorry that I am so late to the party. Thank you for your patience. Now, how can I help?

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