After six years in Zurich, it’s time to go back to the U.S. Leaving Switzerland is bittersweet. There are so many things I will miss.
I will miss the catch in my breath when I see the Alps on a clear day. I will miss swimming in the Limmat. I will miss watching Swiss people get flustered when the tram is five minutes late. I will miss the freedom my children have to enjoy the city independently. I will miss the protests at Ni Una Menos Platz, Zurich Pride Festival, and volunteers asking for signatures on petitions outside the grocery store. I will miss seeing elderly people walking elderly dogs in the forest.
I will miss the “Verein” culture– how seriously people here take their hobbies. I will miss the Swiss love of continuing education and professional certificates. I will miss how formal and polite people are.
I will miss hearing “tiptop!” and “en guete!” and people saying they are “disappointed” instead of “angry”. I will miss public swimming pools that serve both beer and cappuccino. I will miss the Swiss modesty norm – how people pretend that they don’t ski, play tennis, or speak English well but are – in fact – amazing at all these things. I will even miss the church bells on Sunday morning.
Above all, I will miss the hundreds of young people I have had the joy to teach– how smart, curious, fun, and kind they are, how they have changed the way I see the world.
But there is one thing I won’t miss: gender discrimination in the workplace. I won’t miss how complacent, self-congratulatory, and ubiquitous male privilege is and how it is accepted as normal. As a professional woman with children in my late 40s, I won’t miss feeling trapped and invisible at the same time.
Swiss patriarchy: smug and complacent
I won’t miss seeing women at the top of their game denied meaningful work opportunities because they are mothers. I won’t miss the double standard that allows men to be mediocre but retain their given seat at the table, while women who perform brilliantly are expected to stay behind the scenes. I won’t miss the double standard that labels confidence as a sign of leadership in men, and arrogance in women. I won’t miss watching capable Swiss women hide their talent or refuse to speak openly about sexism for fear of rocking the boat. I won’t miss women who do not have children undermining women who do because the patriarchy has succeeded in convincing us that we are in competition with one another for scarce resources. I won’t miss the routine devaluation of women, both foreign and Swiss, especially women who are refugees, who are Muslim, or who are Black.
I won’t miss how complacent, self-congratulatory, and ubiquitous male privilege is and how it is accepted as normal.
Now, of course, this isn’t to say that the patriarchy isn’t alive and well in the U.S. Of course, it is. But the gender discrimination other women and I have experienced in professional contexts in Switzerland has a distinct feel, similar to the 1970s in the U.S.--- an unusual smugness. It is self-satisfied, condescending and entitled. It knows that it still has the upper hand, and it does not doubt that it is in the right. The patriarchy in Switzerland has not even reached the stage where it realizes that maybe it shouldn’t be quite so complacent.
The patriarchy’s gratitude gambit
Gender inequality’s principal defense is that women are so lucky to live in such a peaceful, prosperous, orderly country like Switzerland that criticizing troubling aspects (like xenophobia or sexism) is gauche. The “foreigners must be grateful, Swiss people too!” norm – combined with the tendency to “sweep problems under the rug” to avoid disharmony — works very well for those who benefit from it. It makes sense to defend the status quo if it has served you well.
Gender inequality’s principal defense is that women are so lucky to live in such a peaceful, prosperous, orderly country like Switzerland that criticizing troubling aspects (like xenophobia or sexism) is gauche.
But for others, this element of the social contract is crushing. It is one thing for your rights to equality and dignity to be violated. It is another for people to refuse to acknowledge the violation – or worse, to suggest that it is justified for the greater good. It is a testament to the strength of the patriarchy in Switzerland that it has succeeded in defining the “greater social good” as the well-being of one half of the population while the “small price to pay” is just the “well-being” of the other half.
Let’s get rid of “selber Schuld”
Key to maintaining patriarchy in Switzerland is a tendency to shift the blame on the people who criticize it. You’re not happy? It’s your own fault! If you wanted a big career, why did you have children? If you did not not like traditional values, why did you move to Switzerland? If you didn’t want to be called arrogant, why did you ask for a promotion? If you did not want to be hurt by your husband, why did you insist on provoking him? If you wanted to be both a mother and have a career, why did you make this (single, minor) mistake? Selber Schuld!
Women who push against gender norms are labeled rude, pushy, complicated, greedy and arrogant. The rule is that women in Switzerland must bear hardships modestly and quietly. We should be satisfied with the patriarchy’s benevolence. After all, Switzerland is a democratic country with a strong “humanitarian tradition” and “respect for human rights” – an oasis of stability in a chaotic and dangerous world. And how dare we criticize Switzerland, when the human rights situation of so many countries is far worse? How dare we suggest that Switzerland contributes to the human rights violations of women abroad?
Women who push against gender norms are labeled rude, pushy, complicated, greedy and arrogant. The rule is that women in Switzerland must bear hardships modestly and quietly.
I agree that politeness matters. I admire Swiss norms of modesty and social harmony. I deeply respect the value that Swiss culture places on consensus building. I agree that it’s important to be grateful for what one has and to commend the progress that has been made, thanks to generations of Swiss feminists.
But I also think that it is time to retire “selber schuld!” from the lexicon. The defensiveness that fuels “whataboutism” whenever issues of gender equality are raised in Switzerland needs to be checked. The default norm of complacency should be challenged. The double standard that requires mothers and women to be perfect and men and fathers to clear only a minimal competence threshold should be interrogated. We should listen to women, including foreign women, when they appear “oversensitive” or “angry” (not just “disappointed!”) about gender norms rather than just telling them ( as I have been told countless times) “if you don’t like it, why don’t you just go home?”
The double standard that requires mothers and women to be perfect and men and fathers to clear only a minimal competence threshold should be interrogated.
I also think it is important to ask explicitly: who wins, and who loses, when only certain “Swiss values” are invoked? In case of a conflict between values, which Swiss values are deemed the most important? Social harmony at the cost of one half of the population? Is that actually a reasonable price to pay?
Which Swiss values matter most?
Here is my plea to Swiss people, especially those who haven’t yet joined the feminist and LGBTQI+ movements: Yes, there are problems in other parts of the world that you have largely been spared. Yes, Switzerland is a very special place. Yes, we should feel grateful for getting to live in a prosperous and peaceful country.
But take a look at the data. There is one important respect in which Switzerland a negative outlier: gender equality in the workplace. In The Economist’s 2022 Glass Ceiling Index, which measures the “role and influence of women in the workplace,” Switzerland ranked 26 of 29 among OECD countries, right above Turkey, Japan and South Korea. A 2021 index of gender equality in European corporations and boards ranked Switzerland fourth from the bottom, right above Poland, Luxembourg and Greece. Compared with institutions in other countries, Swiss banks and law firms are particularly unequal, as are Swiss universities, especially in certain fields. Women in Switzerland are still paid 11 percent less than men for the same job.
In other countries, women are not expected to list their children on their CVs.
Women in peer countries are not regularly forced to choose between becoming mothers or having promising careers. Professional men in other countries do not routinely break the law by asking female job candidates about their child-bearing plans. Organizations do not regularly host “expert panels” of only men, or assume the leadership team will be either all male or all male plus perhaps one woman or two (ideally without children). In other countries, women are not expected to list their children on their CVs. LGBTQI+ people in other countries have many options for becoming parents. In many business contexts outside of Switzerland, using gender-neutral pronouns when requested is the norm.
Modesty, politeness, and social harmony are important Swiss values. But so are equality, freedom, and dignity. I have taught hundreds of young Swiss people of all genders who exemplify all of these values. These students have brilliant futures. Let’s not let our complacency with the Swiss patriarchy stand in their way.
Alexandra Dufresne is a human rights lawyer who teaches at institutions of higher education in Switzerland.