Opinions - 08.03.2019 - 00:00 

Swiss women*'s strike as a sign of tenacity

What’s the state of equal opportunities in Switzerland in 2019? A commentary on the occasion of International Women*'s Day on 8 March 2019 by Christa Binswanger, Senior Lecturer for Gender and Diversity at the University of St.Gallen.

8 March 2019. Since the beginning of the year I have been tearing a page a day off the strike calendar that was issued on 1 January 2019. On 8 March there are 98 days left until the women*s strike. Each morning, the calendar provides me with quotations from personalities who advocated for women*'s issues in the past or continue to do so today: from Olympe de Gouge over Audre Lorde to Laurie Penny, every morning I am inspired to start the day by reflecting on equal opportunities, experiences of injustice or overcoming of obstacles that the category of gender can entail. The calendar page for 8 March 2019 reads: "The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity" (Amelia Earhart).

The year 2019 is marked by female public protest in Switzerland, which will be collectively expressed on 14 June. A broad range of different organisations has decided that in 2019 – as a sign of tenacity – it is time to remind the public of the significant gender inequality that still exists and to call for corresponding political and social action. But why is there a women*’s strike just now, in 2019?

Reluctance to change conditions

It is rather sobering that so little has changed since the last nationwide women*'s strike in 1991. For the most part, the core themes and associated claims that were intended to lead to a more egalitarian society are the same today as those of almost thirty years ago: women* take on the majority of unpaid work in our society – the ratio amounts to 2/3 being done by women* and a third by men*. When looking at paid work, the ratio is reversed: 2/3 of paid work is carried out by men*, and 1/3 by women*. Resulting power relations and dependences have been under discussion since the 1970s: Unpaid female care and housework simultaneously enables many men* to pursue gainful employment. With respect to the division of paid work and care work in Swiss families, equal opportunities are far from achieved: male and female choices prove to be just as unequal in the private as in the professional sphere. In this regard, Switzerland continues to be defined by its particular reluctance towards the institutionalisation of measures supporting the work and family interface: a reluctance in offering relief to women* or mothers providing care work, as well as to men* and fathers, who admittedly take on increasingly more, but nonetheless still provide less care and family work at home.

Another pressing issue is the continuation of the wage gap between men* and women* of around 18% (this amounts to an average of 1,455 CHF per month - see Federal Bureau for Equality). This difference can primarily be traced back to the fact that women* often work in areas of employment that are less well paid, and that they are found less frequently in leadership positions than men*. Nevertheless, a good 40% of this difference can be ascribed to discrimination. Women* with the same qualifications and tasks thus earn less than men* and this is especially the case in the private sector.

Backlash in the current debate

Alongside these factors one particular catalyst is particularly influential in 2019, namely a backlash against the subject of gender equality that has proliferated in both political rhetoric and in reputable media outlets. The circulating resentment towards gender equality and equal opportunities often adopts an unobjective, spiteful tone. Empirical research substantiating that Switzerland is lagging behind on a European scale in a number of ways is thus suppressed. The oversimplification of the issue of equal opportunities as being discriminatory against all men* and thus an alarming social development has become respectable, ignoring empirical evidence. The time has thus come once again for many women* to collectively combat such attitudes and assertively demonstrate against the current situation.

The problem is complex and will remain so even after the women*'s strike. But it is cause for hope that equal opportunities for women* are prominently set on the public agenda in 2019. And that the category woman – signalled by the * – is open to all those whose identity lies somewhere between masculinity and femininity, shows that despite many persistent problems, the debates are continuing to move forward. In this sense, the women*'s strike 2019 – by actively and directly taking action against social inequalities – might spur us towards utopia that the category of gender will lose its power in the near future and open the way for a more (gender) equal society.

Dr. Christa Binswanger is Permanent Lecturer in Gender and Diversity at the University of St.Gallen.

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