Women are gaining ground in the Swiss labour market. For years, their wages have been increasing faster than men’s. Yet the public perception is one of discrimination in the workplace, because women’s salaries still average about 19% less than men’s. Avenir Suisse’s new publication, “Gender Equality: Why the Labour Market Hasn’t Failed” disproves this interpretation. Salary differentials are largely attributable to individual career and job choices. Going the full distance on gender equality will need government policies that place fewer barriers on women who want to combine family and career. Among such changes are taxing married couples individually, deregulating supplementary childcare and more flexible holiday rules for parents.

For the past 30 years, women’s pay has been rising faster than men’s. Swiss social security data show real wages for women – on a full time employment basis – have climbed by almost 50% since 1982, compared with just 30% for men. That’s attributable to women’s growing work experience and the rising education of women joining the workforce. Today, just over half Switzerland’s university students are women. But this achievement is now regarded as so obvious it’s barely mentioned. By contrast, much of the political and social debate focuses on complaints that women working in the private sector still earn around 19% less than men, and are seldom visible in top management roles.

The key question here is whether all this stems from failures in the labour market, or whether such remaining differences aren’t just the result of behavioural differences grounded in society. Only a clear breakdown in the labour market would warrant regulators stepping in – as currently being mooted – with wage guidelines. But a misguided cure based on a false diagnosis might end up just making matters worse for women, as companies may hire fewer of them.

Avenir Suisse’s new discussion paper concludes it would be a mistake to blame on the labour market. Widescale disadvantages for women can’t be a stable feature of a flexible jobs market like Switzerland’s, because employers themselves would suffer. So the study draws attention to other reasons for today’s wage inequalities, such as many women’s preference for working part time, lesser interest in technical careers, or in jobs that require particularly rigid hours or physical presence. The report also reveals another surprise relationship: wage differences between men and women are narrower than those between mothers and fathers.

Such behavioural factors come down primarily to traditional social norms. They are already evident in the job choices of 16 year olds, as well as in later life, when it comes to dividing family responsibilities. Nevertheless, many women would work longer hours if the work-family balance were better guaranteed. Avenir Suisse reckons the best way of encouraging women’s professional ambitious would be by removing every hurdle blocking greater engagement in the workforce.

Liberal-minded gender equality rules should aim for equal opportunities, and not equal outcomes. So the following measures seem sensible:

  1. Switching to voluntary individual taxation: The current system disadvantages second income earners (usually women), because it requires couples to submit joint returns. In that sense, Swiss taxation discriminates against women.
  2. Deregulating supplementary childcare: Along with abolishing regulatory requirements for creches, the various other forms of child care (kindergarten, nannies, other forms of part time in home daycare) should be treated similarly. Introducing credits or vouchers for childcare would also be advisable, as parents themselves can best decide what type and quality of care best meets their needs.
  3. More flexible holiday rules for parents: maternity leave should be extended, and the needs of young families would be better met.