A group of women in the United States has filed a sex-discrimination lawsuit against the Swiss pharmaceuticals company Novartis.
The women are seeking damages of $100 million (SFr118.45 million), accusing Novartis of having a "systematic pattern" of discrimination. The Basel company has denied the allegations.
In a statement, lawyers for the plaintiffs - 12 current and former company employees - said the suit was filed in a federal court in Manhattan, New York.
The suit alleges discrimination in pay, promotion, training, evaluation and disciplinary practices. The plaintiffs include current and former sales representatives.
It accuses the company of subjecting women to a hostile work environment, including exposing them to harassment and intimidation and "sexist and racist jokes and comments."
The lawsuit also alleges that men supervisors violated Novartis policies by contacting women employees and giving them work while on family, medical and maternity leave.
Novartis has commented that it strongly disagreed with the allegations and would defend itself "vigorously" in any court.
The company said in a statement that it was "deeply committed to equal employment opportunity for all employees" and was proud of its policies and programmes designed to support the advancement of women in the sales force and throughout the company.
The firm has been publicly recognised for its track record of advancing women within the company and for establishing an inclusive environment that is supportive of the career goals of all of our employees, it added.
A Novartis spokeswoman said that Working Mother magazine had named Novartis one of the "100 Best Companies for Working Mothers" for the past six years.
According to the magazine, 40% of Novartis's top earners and 31% of its executives are women. New mothers who have worked for Novartis for at least a year are entitled to 18 weeks of job-guaranteed leave, with six weeks fully paid.
Mothers also have access to flexible work options, including job-sharing and flexible-working time.
But the plaintiffs' lawyers said Novartis's commitment to gender equality was only skin deep.
"Although the language of their policies suggests that Novartis supports working mothers, Novartis's employment practices say exactly the opposite," David Sanford, an attorney at the law firm Sanford, Wittels & Heisler, said in a statement.
"As soon as a woman indicates that she's planning to become a mother, her male supervisors start pushing her toward the exit."
According to the suit, several of the plaintiffs and "numerous other female employees" have complained to Novartis management and human resources about gender discrimination and a hostile work environment.
The suit claims Novartis's investigations into these complaints have been inadequate.
The plaintiffs are seeking $100 million in back pay and punitive damages to "prevent and deter Novartis from engaging in similar discriminatory practices in the future."
swissinfo with agencies
In Switzerland, the law forbids any discrimination between men and women in the work place.
This includes direct and indirect discrimination and applies to all employees in private enterprises, as well as civil servants at the federal, cantonal and communal levels.
Direct discrimination takes place when men and women are treated differently as a result of their sex. For example, when women receive less pay for doing the same work as men.
Indirect discrimination occurs when men and women are treated the same but when there is an unequal end result. For example, if a company pays out loyalty bonuses only to full-time employees, there can be a discrepancy because most women work part-time.
In compliance with the JTI standards