Swiss women strike to demand equal pay

Hundreds of thousands protest against ‘culture of sexism in everday life’

Women gather to protest in Lucerne.
 Women gather to protest in Lucerne. Photograph: Alexandra Wey/AP

Hundreds of thousands of women across Switzerland have taken to the streets to demand higher pay, greater equality and more respect, protesting that one of the world’s wealthiest countries continues to treat half its population unfairly.

Nearly 30 years after the first nationwide equal rights demonstration by Swiss women, a “purple wave” of pram marches, whistle concerts, extended lunch breaks, giant picnics and city-centre rallies took place on Friday.

“In 2019, we are still looking for equality,” Clara Almeida Lozar, one of the committee women organising the Grève des Femmes or Frauenstreik at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, told Swissinfo.

“We realise there has to be a lot more than this – the culture of sexism is part of everyday life in Switzerland, it’s invisible, and we are so used to just getting along that we hardly even notice it’s there.”

A woman protests outside a hospital in Geneva.
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 A woman protests outside a hospital in Geneva. Photograph: Martial Trezzini/AP

Switzerland lags behind many of its European neighbours in gender equality. Swiss women only got the vote in federal elections in 1971, decades after most of the western world, and until 1985 needed their husbands’ approval to work or open a bank account.

Statutory maternity leave was introduced only in in 2005, while professional women earn on average nearly 19% less than men – and 8% less with the same qualifications. According to a recent Amnesty International survey, 59% of Swiss women say they have experienced sexual harassment.

Along with broader anger over sexism and workplace inequality, many demonstrators demanded higher pay specifically for cleaners, teachers, care workers and other jobs more often performed by women.

More were expected to join the protest after 3.24pm, the hour at which organisers calculate that women taking home the average monthly wage in Switzerland should stop working in order to earn proportionately as much as men for the day.

The first national women’s strike, in 1991, was the biggest industrial action in Swiss history, with more 500,000 women walking out of their jobs to protest against discrimination a decade after sexual equality became law.

Many women feel little real progress has been made since. “I think a lot of us thought change would just happen automatically after 1991,” said Marie-Laure Fabre, a temp agency manager. “But it hasn’t and it won’t. This goes very deep; it’s structural. We’re going to have to fight for what we deserve.”

Events kicked off overnight, with women in Lausanne ringing the bells of the cathedral, which was lit up in purple, lighting a “bonfire of joy” on to which they threw ties and bras, and gathering early on Friday for a breakfast celebration.

Lausanne Cathedral is lit in purple, the official colour of the movement.
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 Lausanne Cathedral lit in purple, the official colour of the movement. Photograph: Denis Balibouse/Reuters

In Zurich, marchers pulled a giant pink clitoris through the city on a float, while in Basel they projected the clenched-fist feminist symbol on to the headquarters of pharmaceutical firm Roche. In Bern, parliament marked the moment with a 15-minute pause in proceedings.

“To succeed, any movement needs an emotional energy to it,” the historian Elisabeth Joris told local media. “This energy has now accumulated. There is a huge generation of young women in their 20s and 30s that now favours feminism.”

Organisers called upon women to snub housework and to boycott shops and restaurants for the day to help raise awareness about the vital social and economic contribution they make.

Women hold a protest picnic in Lausanne.
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 Women hold a protest picnic in Lausanne. Photograph: Jean-Christophe Bott/EPA

While some employers said they would not penalise women who took time off work to join the protests, and others actively supported them – including Le Temps newspaper, which left blank spaces where articles written and edited by female journalists would normally appear – many were opposed.

Several told female employees they would have to book any time off as holiday, and Switzerland’s main employers’ organisation said it was against the movement, which recent opinion polls have shown is backed by more than 63% of the population.

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