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Novartis, Heal Thyself - and Treat Executive Women with Respect

05/25/2010 01:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Poor Novartis. The Cavemen of Basel have just lost a major battle in the United States against those pesky women feminists. On top of the $3.3 million in compensatory damages that Switzerland-based Novartis will have to pay the 12 courageous women who brought the discrimination suit against the pharmaceutical giant, the company will also have to dish out a whopping $250 million in punitive damages, and up to $300,000 per plaintiff (there are 5,600 of them) in additional damages for pain and suffering. And there was plenty of that. The testimony reads like an X-rated Hollywood script: rape; sex for drug orders; a climate of lascivious behavior; lap dances for the boss; high-achieving women being actively discouraged from becoming pregnant, or encouraged to have abortions, and/or fired once they gave birth.

The Novartis experience is not an isolated case. In Switzerland, there is a culture of disdain and distrust of ambitious women who work. Several years ago, the CEO of a large Swiss bank (that shall remain nameless) said to me over lunch in his executive dining room overlooking Zürich's Bahnhofstrasse, "I would never hire an American woman to work for me because she will most likely sue you for discrimination." (This was just after he said that Alfonse D'Amato's claims about Swiss banks withholding Jewish funds were nonsense.)

Switzerland has the world's largest men's club. It's called the Swiss Military. No women allowed. All Swiss males are conscripted and they go off for weeks of annual bonding exercises under the guise of protecting the landlocked country from invasion. That time off is fully paid for by the men's employers. There tends to be a correlation between a man's rank in the military and his rank in his company. Women, whose primary role in society is taking care of home and kids, are traditionally paid 15 percent less than an equivalent male doing exactly the same job. Most women work part-time because daycare facilities are very hard to find, and society frowns on ambitious working moms. If that's not enough, the Swiss tax code penalizes couples when both partners work full-time.

Consider this: women in Canton Appenzell (where the cheese comes from) were not allowed to vote until 1990. Until a few years ago, it was normal (and completely legal) for a company to publicly and openly specify the sex, age and other qualities it preferred in candidates for particular jobs. The country that disparages the way Muslim women are treated can't seem to treat its own women on an equal footing to men. How hypocritical is that?!? Want more hypocrisy? Novartis was listed on Working Mother magazine's "Best 100 Companies" list for the past 10 years!

As a native Swiss by heritage and birth, it really pains me to see a major Swiss multi-national not only allowing, but also condoning such ruthless, bone-headed and outright maliciously wrong practices against women who have every right to be treated with respect. At its core, discrimination is a naked abuse of power. In order to truly change the culture at Novartis and other companies, the will and appropriate course of actions must come from the top.

Swiss (cave) men could use a major re-education in the ways of the world in the 21st Century. There is a saying in Switzerland: "The Swiss get up early, but they wake up late." I hope that this class-action lawsuit finally wakes them up. Poor Novartis needs to quit whining and take the medicine that's been prescribed.