Where Women Can (Almost) Have It All

Switzerland as a Haven for Work-Life Balance

Perhaps the most controversial article in the United States in 2012, at least in terms of generating heated debate, came from The Atlantic magazine. The topic was the role of women and what the writer, Anne-Marie Slaughter, described as the you-can-have-it-all “fiction,” amid what one might call a post-feminist era.

The article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” is very long and includes fawning over politicians, but the theme goes well beyond the U.S. and deserves the attention it received. Slaughter did give an interview with Stephen Colbert, so if you have minimal patience like me, skip to the video below. (One of the magazine’s editors conducted a more formal interview and synopsis, which is available here—five minutes)

Slaughter’s key assertion was that, in her experience, women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are “superhuman, rich, or self-employed.” She is one who has decided to step back from her career, at least partially, in order to devote more time to her two sons.

Predictably, plenty of the response was negative, and from various perspectives. The simple notion that we all have limited means, particularly time, and face trade-offs seems uncontroversial. However, this reality may pose a threat to fairytale views of the world, and other people took exception with what they perceived as a gender-oriented entitlement mentality.

Writer Abroad: Chantal Panozzo

While the consequent debate could not solve a perennial concern for many women—how to achieve a work-life balance—one particular response caught my attention. An article by Chantal Panozzo raised the notion that the problem Slaughter and other women face has less to do with the reality of time constraints. Rather, it stems from peer pressures and unrealistic expectations.

She happens to be an American writer living in Switzerland, and she recalled a revealing conversation on this matter. A man inquired about whether she’d gone back to work after giving birth to her child.

“Yes, after a six month leave, I went back to work 60 percent,” she said.

“Oh,” he said. “Doing the ‘Swiss woman’ thing, I see.”

At first, [she] was slightly offended. But then she smiled because it was kind of true. And also because it was kind of nice that part-time work was accepted as something professional people did in Switzerland.

Panozzo continues:

Things are a bit different in Switzerland. Some may call it old-fashioned. Because here, it is still acceptable (even encouraged) for professionals to put family first. For Writer Abroad, it was no big deal to take a six-month leave from her ad agency in Zurich (also easy to do when health benefits aren’t tied to employment) and come back part-time.

Apparently, even men are more inclined to take time away from work for family life.

Panozzo did caution people that not everything is perfect for women in Switzerland, and some younger women feel trapped by the expectation they must devote most of their time to family life. She also noted that the church bells still ring at 11 a.m. to remind mothers to cook lunches for the family.

Many schools have varying start times depending on the day of the week, and many children still have two hour lunch breaks where someone is expected to be at home to feed them. And store hours aren’t exactly late-night worker friendly either.

I will admit that hot, home-cooked lunches and two-hour lunch breaks don’t exactly put me off Switzerland—not that I’m a woman. So I asked Panozzo to accept an interview on The Stateless Man to expand upon the theme of her article. Lexxie Monahan, a young lady and former colleague of mine at the John Locke Foundation, joined me for that segment (19 minutes).

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Panozzo shared that she supports the original feminist movement, but she is concerned that these days women face a no-win scenario. Either they are neglecting their children or their career, and some people are guaranteed to look down on them regardless of their decision.

“It’s okay to enjoy your family… The main thing is that there is this fear, where you don’t want to admit that you want to go home at a decent hour… People are chained to their desks in the United States, and I think it’s different here… I am happy with the way I can work three days a week and still be a mom the other two [weekdays]… It’s just not as cut-throat.”

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Fergus Hodgson About Fergus Hodgson

Host and founder of the Stateless Man radio show and blog. Follow @FergHodgson.