Women across Switzerland strike to protest gender pay gap

Swiss women are striking en masse on Friday, in a 24-hour nationwide protest to highlight the country’s poor record on gender equality and the gender pay gap.

The umbrella movement — which encompasses women from trade unions, feminist groups and women’s rights organizations — argues that one of the world’s richest nations has given half of its population a poor deal.

Minutes after midnight, the first protesters took to the streets under the demonstration’s motto: “Pay, time, respect,” kicking off a day of events aimed at drawing attention to a gaping divide in gender equality across the workplace and the home.

Workshops and demonstrations, flash mobs and stroller marches are scheduled in towns and cities across the country throughout the day, with a nationwide walkout timed for 3:30 p.m. local time (9:30 a.m. ET).

In a show of solidarity, some parliamentarians joined the strike, while other MPs wore purple — the color adopted for the movement — to signify their support.

The strike is the first of its kind since 1991, when a similar protest saw some 500,000 women demonstrate against continued gender inequality across all sectors of life, 10 years after gender equality was enshrined in the country’s constitution.

That movement eventually led to the passing of the Gender Equality Act in 1995, which banned discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace.

Now, Switzerland ranks first in the UNDP’s gender equality index, and in the World Economic Forum’s top 20 countries in last year’s global gender report.

But women’s rights activists say that women are still systemically discriminated against in the professional world, that job security and advancement is limited, and protections for women facing harassment, abuse and violence are lacking.

Data from Switzerland’s Federal Statistics Office supports those claims.

On average, in full-time employment, Swiss women earn 19.6% less than men. While that number has dropped by nearly a third over the last three decades, the discrimination gap — the gap in pay that has no explainable reason — is on the rise.

Regula Bühlmann, central secretary for the Swiss Trade Unions Confederation, told CNN that although the law is in place to protect equality, women still “haven’t achieved equal rights at work.”

Yet Friday’s strike isn’t just about the pay gap.

Bühlmann added that although the focus of the trade unions’ protest was to highlight discrimination in the workplace, there are many reasons for women to strike, including the “everyday sexism” that prevails across many different aspects of society, and the burden that disproportionately falls on women in the home.

“What we really want is that men and women share paid and unpaid work equally, that women and their work is valued equally — or more — because at the moment, unpaid care workers are not valued,” Bühlmann said.

In a 19-point manifesto The Women’s Strike Geneva Committee, who have co-organized the movement, has called for better protections for women facing domestic violence and abuse, migrant women and domestic workers, increased parental leave and support for the LGBTQ community, among others.

Group member Kaya Pawlowska, 32, told CNN that she hopes that the widespread action will help to put the pressure on lawmakers to take concrete actions, just as the 1991 protests eventually did.

“Inequality is non-negotiable,” Pawlowska said.

“It’s not something that we can continue to consider that we might improve. We have a constitutional article that says we are equal, and there is absolutely no reason and no economic reason (to not be treated as such). We are not at war, we are not living under pressure, we can have this equality effectively.”

Ursula Keller, a professor of physics at ETH Zürich university, told CNN that the issue of gender equality also pervades across academia, which had seen some positive changes off the back of the 1991 movement — but has since stalled.

After 25 years in her post, she says she is one of only two only senior women employed in her department, even though the number of professors have increased.

Like Pawlowska, Keller is hopeful that the strike can make a real impact.

“If we don’t fight for it we aren’t going to get it.”

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