“Women were treated almost like children”

Heike Bazak, Head of the PTT Archive, describes the tentative introduction of equal opportunities for women at Swiss Post.

Susanna Stalder

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Copyright: PTT Archive
Copyright: PTT Archive

The PTT Archive has prepared a file on the history of women at PTT. Which research findings were you most surprised about?

Firstly, the fact that for many years, women were treated almost like children: it was their fathers – and later their husbands – who gave them permission to work. Secondly, that when the management career path was opened to women in the early 1970s, another restriction was immediately imposed on them: only 200 women were admitted to management training.

Why did women have to wait so long to be able to access management positions?

This was related to society. Men were the breadwinners in the family. And the same principle applied at Swiss Post. It was therefore very important that women did not take jobs away from men. Most women also left work when they got married, so it seemed unnecessary to allow them to train as managers. What’s more, management career paths were actually already accessible to women until the early 20th century. They were not prohibited until 1910.

What led to this?

A woman was appointed head of the post office in Vevey. This resulted in protests by the postmaster association. Although the Federal Council did not consider it a problem to have a female sub-postmaster, discussions went on for years until finally, the promotion of women to management positions was forbidden. Women nonetheless still became responsible for small village post offices in certain cases, for instance on the death of their husband. Swiss Post tolerated this because it was generally the most practical and economical solution.

This meant that job opportunities for women were extremely limited. In your opinion, what was the best job for a woman at Swiss Post back then?

Working in a small post office was probably the most varied role. A sub-postmaster family reigned over its own little kingdom and managed the business for its own account.

Heike Bazak, Head of the PTT Archive.

Going back to the 1970s for a moment, it’s important to remember that women obtained the right to vote in 1971. What was the situation for women at Swiss Post?

A large number of women had been employed in the 1960s, partly as sorters, since sorting work was greatly simplified by the introduction of postcodes in 1964. It no longer required special training. Management positions or male domains, such as the prestigious railway mail service, remained closed to women, despite the lack of staff.

Does that mean that Swiss Post was not a pioneer in terms of equal opportunities?

No. As a federal enterprise, however, Swiss Post implemented changes rapidly as soon as the political decision had been made. The rigid boundaries between professional groups were relaxed, and women were now officially allowed to embark on management career paths. Yet it was not easy for them at the start: women often had to put up with silly jokes, and they had to work harder than the men. It’s not surprising that only a few women were brave enough to attend the first secretarial courses.

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What happened next?

PTT joined the “Taten statt Worte” (actions, not words) programme. This was launched by politicians, industry and administration in the 1980s to promote equal opportunities for men and women. For me, this programme, which had an impact in the 1990s, represents a milestone in the history of women at Swiss Post. But it was a long and tedious process before women became equal employees.

written by

Susanna Stalder