Swiss women stage mass strike demanding overdue equality
By Marina Depetris and Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi
GENEVA/ZURICH (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of women across Switzerland held a strike on Friday to highlight their wealthy nation's poor record on female rights, recreating the passion of the last such walkout 28 years ago.
In Zurich, the financial capital and the country's biggest city, tens of thousands of protesters clogged the streets, blowing whistles and banging pots and pans. "Men, go do the ironing," one sign read.
"It's not just about wages. The equal opportunity is not there. At least for the next generation it needs to be there," Zurich city councilwoman Karin Rykart said as hundreds of municipal workers and police officers demonstrated.
Despite its high quality of life, Switzerland lags other developed economies in female pay and workplace gender equality.
Friday's event echoed a strike in 1991, five years before the Gender Equality Act came into force. That 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 still earn less than men, face routine questioning of their competence, and encounter condescension on the job, they say.
Organisers say the strike draws attention to wages, violence against women, and the need for greater representation in positions of power and more equitable family policy.
Christine Lagarde, the first woman to lead the International Monetary Fund, joined in while addressing an event in Geneva.
"At this point in time if I were true to my colors I would actually turn my back to you and express in that way the fact that I am actually on strike - but you might be disappointed," she said.
"So instead of this I am actually wearing this (lapel pin) out of solidarity with the Swiss women who claim equality in terms of salaries and a few other things."
The SGB labor union federation estimated 100,000 people joined the strike by midday, with more participating from 3:24 p.m., when women technically work for free given wage discrimination.
"THINGS DIDN'T CHANGE"
Swiss women earn roughly 20% less than men. While that is an improvement from about a third less in 1991, the discrimination gap — meaning differences that cannot be explained by rank or role — has actually worsened since 2000, government data show.
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.
"We have realized that even after this first strike in 1991, things didn't really change. Equality is enshrined in the constitution, but real, material, effective equality doesn't exist for all women," said organizer Tamara Knezevic, 24.
The World Economic Forum found Switzerland ranked 34th for economic participation and opportunity and 44th for wage equality in a 2018 study of 149 countries.
See Factbox on 9 leading Swiss women
(Additional reporting by Denis Balibouse in Lausanne and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Raissa Kasolowsky)