Do men and women have an equal right to social security? This question arises on the one hand for gender-specific risks, such as maternity, and on the other relative to access to social insurance. Access to social insurance is highly dependent on employment status, meaning gender differences in employment histories are reflected in entitlements to social security. 

Legal access to social security is based on ideas of which roles people of different genders should assume in society. Gender roles have changed over the course of time. Conversely, social security institutions have also affected the societal relationship between the genders: they have promoted certain social roles for men and women as well as certain norms concerning family life.

Access to Social Insurances

Women have been less well insured than men since social insurance systems began. They were significantly underrepresented in mutual aid societies and union funds, as well as in early institutions of the social state, and less well protected against illness and unemployment than men. This only partly reflects their smaller presence in the labour market. In terms of access to social insurance, women-dominated professions were discriminated against, and married women were even excluded (from 1942 to 1951) from the unemployment insurance system. In the social security systems, moreover, women faced worse terms for participating and often had to pay higher premiums, as for healthcare insurance (from the 1930s to 1996), due to potentially higher costs incurred in bearing children. Women likewise received lower benefits in unemployment insurance. Until 1995, married women could draw on their pensions and their old age and survivors’ insurance only with the consent of their husbands. Measures were finally taken towards the end of the 20th century to improve women’s position in healthcare insurance, in response to calls from the women’s movement, resulting in the 1995 Equality Act. Equality between men and women in old age and surviviors’ insurance did not come about until the tenth AHV revision in 1995 LINK, which increased women’s retirement age 62 to 64. 

Maternity as a Social Risk

Since the beginning of the 20th century, women’s organisations dedicated themselves to protecting pregnant women and young mothers from the loss of income associated with maternity. Maternity was recognised as a social risk in the 1945 constitutional article mandating the protection of the family, yet this constitutional mandate was not implemented until maternity insurance was introduced in 2004, following several previous failures (1984, 1987 and 1999).The new regulation has brought some improvement in making family life and employment more compatible, though the statutory maternity leave period is rather short compared with other countries. Calls for paternity leave have also been heard recently, with a 2015 parliamentary initiative calling for ten days of paternity leave for all working fathers. Funding would come from the income compensation scheme. 

Access to Employment and Gender-Specific Division of Labour 

To varying degrees, women were underrepresented in the labour market throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries and received lower wages. This remains the case today. This has meant they have also had less access to social security than men, since the benefits disbursed by social security systems are heavily tied to contributions made in the form of wage deductions. Anyone who has an interrupted employment history or who works part-time faces reductions in benefits. This continues to be a more prevalent problem for women than men.

Since the 19th century, the ideal(ized) household contained men who worked for wages outside the home, and women who raised children and did housework inside the home. This ‘male breadwinner’ model, or gendered division of labour, was also legitimised by the Factory Act, for example. This act worsened the earning opportunities for women by protecting pregnant women and young mothers from the ‘burden’ of work, if they had been in employment, without compensating them for their loss of income. In the 1930s, the coincidence of the family protection movement and the global economic crisis led to increasing difficulties for women in many occupations to pursue gainful employment. 

Women’s work was considered a form of supplementary household income and was called into question by many groups in society. Even though the majority of women worked outside the family, their work was deemed less important and was hence also less well ensured against unemployment, illness and old age. The family allowances introduced in the cantons subsequent to the 1945 family protection article ultimately solidified the provider role of men and reduced the incentives for married women to work. LVEO during the Second World War also favoured the gender-specific division of labour, as it only provided compensation for married men, although all working people – men and women – paid contributions into the system. Life as a housewife became a reality for the majority of women by the 1950s, since higher wages made it possible for families to get by on only one income. 

Compatibility of Work and Family Life

Compared to other countries, Switzerland lags behind when it comes to women’s contributions to family incomes, in public expenditures for maternity leave and day care centres, as well as in the equality of opportunity and income on the labour market. This is connected to the continued prevalence of a traditional understanding of the family which assigns domestic work in the family to women.

The family has scarcely played a role in national policy, with the exception of the family protection movement during the 1930s and 1940s. It has only been since the 1970s, under the influence of demands made by the women’s movement, the improved access women have gained to work opportunities, changes in the labour market, and changes to family structures (the increase in divorces, patchwork families and single parenthood) that politicians and parties have focused more on the family. To this day, and despite calls for it, the equality of opportunity between men and women remains only partially realised. Political measures have been primarily aimed at promoting the compatibility of work and family life, not at a fairer gender allocation of housework.

Literatur / Bibliographie / Bibliografia / References: Studer Brigitte, « Genre et protection sociale », in Brodiez-Dolino Axelle, Bruno Dumos (éd.), La protection sociale en Europe au XXe siècle, Rennes : Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2014; Studer Brigitte (2012), Ökonomien der sozialen Sicherheit, in P. Halbeisen, M. Müller, B. Veyrassat (ed.), Wirtschaftsgeschichte der Schweiz im 19. Jahrhundert, 923–974, Basel; Togni Carola, Le genre du chômage. Assurance chômage et division sexuée du travail en Suisse (1924-1982), Lausanne : Antipodes, 2015; Wecker Regina, « Ungleiche Sicherheiten. Das Ringen um Gleichstellung in den Sozialversicherungen », in Frauenrechte Schweizerischer Verband für (éd.), Der Kampf um gleiche Rechte, Basel : Schwabe, 2009, pp. 185-194.