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Pay, time, respect: nearly three decades on, Swiss women strike again

ZURICH/GENEVA (Reuters) - Women from across Swiss society plan to take to the streets this Friday for a nationwide strike aimed at highlighting the country’s poor record on defending the rights of women and families.

Despite its high quality of life, Switzerland lags other developed economies in female pay and workplace gender equality.

Using the slogan “Pay, time, respect!” Friday’s event echoes a strike held in 1991, five years before Switzerland Gender Equality Act came into force.

That law banned workplace discrimination and sexual harassment and protected women from bias or dismissal over pregnancy, marital status, or gender.

But more than 20 years later, women argue they face earning less than men, routine questioning of their competence, and condescension and paternalism on the job.

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“I think the time has come to finally take measures so that women can take their rightful place in the decision-making spheres and defend their interests at all levels of society,” said Adele Thorens, a 48-year-old politician for the Green Party in Lausanne.

“There is a real ‘glass ceiling’, the way of treating women is different than the way they treat men,” Lynn Bertholet, a 60-year-old private bank manager from Geneva, who is transgender, told Reuters. “I realize that because most of my existence has been as a man.”

Organizers say the strike is aimed at highlighting wages, recognition of care work, violence against women, the need for greater representation in positions of power and for more equitable family policy.

In schools in Zurich, teachers and caregivers will strike for better pay in female-dominated roles and for better work-family balance, asking fathers to pick children up early and leaving other children in the care of male peers.

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Swiss women earn roughly 20% less than men. While that is down from about a third in 1991, the discrimination gap — meaning differences that cannot be explained by rank or role — has actually worsened since 2000, Federal Statistics Office data show.

“We’re striking because women earn less for the same work, are passed over for promotions, are hardly represented at the executive level and because typically female jobs are poorly paid,” co-organizers the Women*strike Collective Zurich wrote in a manifesto.

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The collective said its temporary office has been flooded with visitors and hundreds of people, including men, have sent emails expressing solidarity and asking about how they can participate.

Professional snowboarder Anne-Flore Marxer, 35, said she had seen first-hand how discrimination persists in sport as well.

“In free ride competitions ...the first male skier gets $8,000 while the first woman snowboarder gets $4,000 for the same competition, the same day, on the same mountain,” Marxer told Reuters.

On June 14, 1991, women blocked trams during a sit-in in the heart of Zurich’s financial district and gathered outside schools, hospitals and across cities with purple balloons and banners to demand equal pay for equal work.

That came a decade after basic gender equality was enshrined in the Swiss constitution and less than three months after women for the first time were allowed to participate in a regional vote in the canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden.

“I think that on June 14, 1991, women invented a new form of expression,” Social Democrat Ruth Dreifuss, who that year became Switzerland’s first female president, told the daily Tribune de Geneve. “Everything converged into a single message: we want to come out of the shadow and have our work finally be recognized.”

Reporting by Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi and Denis Balibouse; additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Jason Neely