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Swiss analysis: Switzerland’s gender pay gap – what the detail reveals

In 2014, the average gross annual salary for a full-time male worker in Switzerland was CHF 81,000, CHF 10,000 or 12.5% higher than that of an average woman. But what does this high level difference mean?

Inspired by the Swedish statistician Hans Rosling, who passed away recently, I decided to dig deeper to see what was behind this top line pay difference.

Hans Rosling had a knack for using statistics to expose bias and our inbuilt tendency to overlook change. He would take numbers from the UN and show how things like family size and poverty had declined enormously. His statistics revealed that Sweden’s best students know less about the world than chimpanzees.

In addition, he would show how much information was lost when aggregated numbers are used. In one example he showed how child survival rates vary more across Africa than they do across the entire world, when data are aggregated into broad clumps.

So how do Swiss gender pay differences look when broken down?

The information available at the Swiss statistics office gives pay gaps for 38 occupational groups, broken down into three age segments.

Gender pay differences increase dramatically with age. The aggregate difference for those under 30 was 5%, well below the overall average of 12.5%. For those between 29 and 50 the gap climbed to 10%. And for those 50 and above the gap widened to 16% – an average woman was making close to CHF 15,000 p.a. less than an average man in this age band.


© Auremar | - Click to enlarge

A study done in the canton of Vaud suggests there could be a trend towards greater pay equality which starts with education. Numbers from 2012 show that three times as many men over the age of 64 have a tertiary qualification as women of the same age. Among those aged 25-29, women are on a par with men – 47% of both genders have a tertiary qualification. 10 years earlier in 2002, 36% of men versus 24% of women were tertiary qualified, so much of the change is relatively recent.

At the same time, an age-related increase in pay differences might suggest that things stand in the way female career progression. Perhaps women hit a ceiling while men carry on. Perhaps education choices make a difference but only later on in a career. The same Vaud study shows a marked educational gender divide when it comes to field of study. In 2012, boys overwhelmingly chose to study fields such as economics, law, science and engineering, all subjects which typically lead to highly-paid jobs. Women overwhelmingly chose to study visual arts, music, philosophy, psychology and modern languages.

Drilling down into the 38 occupational groups, the degree of variation increases enormously. In one category, legal and social services, women under 30 earn 9% more than men. In another, health specialists over 50, women earn 36% less than men.

Other areas where women earn around the same or slightly more than men were administrative and accounting work. Female truck and heavy vehicle drivers were paid only 7% less than men. In these fields the differences varied little with age.

Occupations where the pay gap was widest, were 50+ hotel and restaurant managers (32%), 50+ commercial sales people (31%), and 50+ health specialists (36%). These pay gap percentages fell substantially for women under 30, to 2%, 5% and 5% respectively.

While it is difficult to draw conclusions, the more detailed numbers clearly show that while most women earn less than men, not all do. The numbers also provoke questions, such as: why women over 50 working as health specialists earn 36% less than men? What is it about this this field of work that leads to such large gender pay variations? Are there areas of specialization that are particularly well paid that men dominate because of what they chose to study or is something else happening?

If he were still with us, Hans Rosling would most likely recommend digging deeper. Within the subcategories of health specialists we might find a range of pay gaps. We might find what 50+ women studied at school made it difficult to get higher paid roles. We might also find something else.

By looking more closely at younger workers we might reveal how much things have already changed and where to focus next.


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