We don’t think of marriage as an institution that negatively impacts a person’s earning power, but the law has long recognised this feature, taking into account years of unpaid care work and reduced earning capacity in the case of divorce. Now the approach is more cautious.
Previously, settlements between couples were quite traditional, reflecting the model of most families, where one spouse earned most of the family income and one spouse did most of the care and home-related work.
But recent Swiss Federal Court judgements between 2020 and 2022 reflect a changed approach towards establishing individual financial independence. Now, in normal cases, the lesser-earning spouse is supposed to be able to support herself (mostly wives) fully as soon as possible after divorce.
The principle of financial independence being pushed through on the divorce side ignores the reality for most mothers, who for practical, economic and cultural reasons reduce their – present and future – earning capacity during marriage. Divorced women already had a much higher risk of experiencing poverty than divorced men before this change.
So what’s keeping women in the home? The reluctance of Swiss parents to use external childcare is an interesting phenomenon. Could it be related to the history of poor children forcibly being taken into care or is it simply an expression of conservative values?
Grandparents Day is celebrated on the second Sunday of March in Switzerland. In my local newspaper, the occasion was marked with an article about a grandmother who looks after her two grandchildren up to four day per week. Both her daughters, mothers of the pre-school age children, said they would work less or not at all if they didn’t have this family care arrangement for their children.
The grandmother, who is only 57 years old, has a paid job one day per week. She said she would rather give up that job than miss out on looking after her grandchildren.
This strong preference for family-based care for children is part of the reason why most mothers reduce their working hours significantly after birth. Day care is seen by many parents as less than ideal, an option to be used in small doses to complement family-based or other privately-arranged care.
Added to that cultural barrier, and the short duration of statutory maternity leave (14 weeks), the cost of childcare in Switzerland, which is the second highest of OECD countries, is prohibitive. The net cost of a full-time place in a creche for one child is 26 percent of the average household income of a working couple in Switzerland, second only to New Zealand at 27 percent.
Most OECD members manage to provide childcare that costs less than 15 percent of a couple’s income. Ireland, the UK, New Zealand and Switzerland are the only four countries above the 20 percent mark.
Traditional gender-based roles within marriage are alive and kicking in Switzerland. Economically, this is a disadvantage for women, at least on paper. But the disadvantage becomes concrete in the case of divorce. Because when the provider-carer deal is broken, the law is blind to that lack of economic equality.
Divorce is not a rare scenario. The divorce rate in Switzerland was 41.9 percent in 2021 and the average length of marriage at the time of divorce was 15.7 years. A lot can happen in 15.7 years, especially when they are potentially a person’s prime earning years.
The main thrust of the Federal Court decisions on divorce law is a narrowing of the conditions under which the lesser-earning spouse receives maintenance payments. A marriage is no longer automatically considered to be life-shaping (lebensprägend), and therefore creating a right to alimony, just because there are children involved.
The position now is that the spouse who looks after the children during the marriage should stand on their own two feet financially after the marriage ends. This overwhelmingly applies to mothers, most of whom work part-time.
But the change has happened without the necessary progress in the economic situation of women, and as a result, there is now a mismatch between the law and the reality for women.
The reality is that motherhood in Switzerland usually means losing ground in the workplace, while fatherhood does not. Women generally do more unpaid work at home, whether they have a paid job or not. Most women work part-time and mothers often work in worse-paid jobs than they are qualified for as a result of their interrupted working life.
The net effect of all this is that women are at higher risk of poverty in old age, especially if the provider-carer deal they participate in for several years is shattered by divorce.
I’m all for encouraging women to regain their financial independence after divorce. But not in a way that the structural barriers are ignored.
There are signs of improvement in the area of childcare provision. Full-day schooling is becoming more common, with fewer children needing to return home in the middle of the day. Last September, voters in the city of Zurich approved a plan to offer supervision and a meal to children over the lunch break in all schools by 2025, for instance.
The National Council voted last month in favour of a 710-million-franc package intended to reduce childcare costs for families by 20 percent by 2025. The Council of States, usually more reluctant to spend, still has to vote on the package.
But it will take years for families to actually reap the benefit of these measures, which still only scratch the surface of the problem of economic inequality. In the meantime, women facing divorce need to know that they are on their own, and that neither the state, their ex-partner nor the law will necessarily help them in future.