A major class-action gender discrimination lawsuit by women sales workers against Novartis Pharmaceuticals is set to begin on Wednesday in New York.
The women, who have worked for the Swiss drug giant across the United States, claim that the company discriminated against them in the areas of pay, promotions, and pregnancy-related matters.
The 17 plaintiffs - both current and former employees of Novartis - are representing 5,600 of their colleagues and seeking total damages of $200 million (SFr213 million).
A Novartis spokeswoman declined to discuss details of the case but said in a statement that the company believes the plaintiffs' claims are "unfounded, and strongly disagrees with the allegations made in this lawsuit”. The statement adds, "We look forward to presenting our case in court."
According to the law firm representing the women, Sanford Wittels & Heisler, their federal-court suit is one of the largest gender discrimination class-action lawsuits ever to go to trial in the US.
The complaint alleges that Novartis's sex discrimination includes policies and practices that keep women employees in lower positions. "Novartis in effect bars females from better and higher paying positions which have traditionally been held by male employees," the complaint says.
The plaintiff's attorney contends they have solid statistical and anecdotal evidence to support the claims against the company. They plan to put 14 women on the stand, as well as a number of senior level Novartis managers - including a vice president and a head of human resources from 2000 to 2007 – to prove their case.
More than 30 women provided sworn statements describing "differential treatment on the basis of pregnancy or motherhood", with many of them testifying to comments made by managers "indicating hostility to pregnancy", according to court papers.
One woman testified that her manager told her he preferred not to hire young women, explaining, “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes flex time and a baby carriage.”
Another manager allegedly encouraged a woman to get an abortion. Still another woman claims that employees were urged during a training session to avoid getting pregnant. The woman, who was five months pregnant at the time, "drew the eye of the trainer, who said, 'Oops, too late,'” according to court papers.
The complaint also alleges that the plaintiffs were subjected to a hostile work environment, sexual harassment and retaliation.
American women are more likely than their Swiss counterparts to take legal action to fight gender discrimination, according to Yves Flückiger, an economics professor at Geneva University.
One reason for increased litigation in the US, he says, is a greater awareness of inequality issues in the workplace.
“There is less transparency in Switzerland [compared with the US] in terms of wages, in terms of promotion, so it’s really difficult for women to collect evidence that there may be some problems in terms of promotion or wages, ” Flückiger told swissinfo.ch. He attributes this in part to American workers talking more openly about their pay than Swiss workers do.
Flückiger, who has written widely about inequality in the workplace, believes Swiss women are more likely to face difficulties finding employment after filing a discrimination suit. “I think this is different in the US. If you go to court, you will not be penalised in terms of your job prospects,” he said.
Legal differences between the two countries could also play a role. Class-action lawsuits, where a large group of people collectively bring a claim to court, are not a legal option in Switzerland. The threat of class-action suits is a powerful tool available to American women, according to Flückiger.
He adds that Switzerland could see an increase in court cases in the future as Swiss women become more aware of their rights.
US women fare better
While American women may be more likely to take action, Swiss women appear to have more ground to make up in the workplace.
A recent study by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum found that the US outranked Switzerland in the area of “economic participation and opportunity”. In its 2009 Global Gender Gap Index - a survey of gender-based disparities in 134 countries - the US ranked 17th compared with 48th for Switzerland in the category.
“On the representation of women within companies, the US performs well ahead of Switzerland,” Saadia Zahidi, head of the forum's Women Leaders and Gender Parity Program, told swissinfo.ch.
Of the 600 companies surveyed, the study found that overall the percentage of women working in these companies was 40 per cent in Switzerland, compared with just over 50 per cent in the US.
Swiss women were less likely to work in management level jobs holding: 17 per cent of middle management jobs, compared with 26 per cent by American women; 11 per cent of senior management jobs, compared with 28 per cent by American women, and six per cent at the board level compared with 14 per cent for their US counterparts.
In terms of policies and practices to promote gender equality, the US “scored ahead of Switzerland in almost all cases”, said Zahidi, a co-author of the study. For example, American firms are more likely to have policies to address female participation, to monitor salary gaps between men and women, and to address work-life balance.
The US has a longer history of addressing gender equality issues than Switzerland; legislation to address the equality of women and men was enacted in the US through the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
In Switzerland, the principle of gender equality has been embodied in the Swiss Constitution since 1981, and the Gender Equality Act came into effect in 1996.
Karin Kamp in New York, swissinfo.ch (With input from Dale Bechtel)
The gender discrimination lawsuit against Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation, a US affiliate of Novartis AG, was first filed in 2004.
In a 2007 ruling a federal judge in New York granted class-action status to the case. While the judge ruled the suit against Novartis Pharmaceuticals could proceed, they dismissed the plaintiffs' claims against Novartis Corporation.
Jury selection will begin on April 7, 2010, with the case expected to last 5 weeks.