Career plans, conferences and kids' birthday parties

09/Sep/2016

There are many possibilities for combining an academic career with a family. We here present portraits of six academics who live in different family models, but who are all confronted by the same issues: coordinating everything from meetings and childcare to foreign trips and tax returns so that everyone gets along. We learn how they manage this with a combination of creativity and steady nerves – and we also look at how things have changed over the past 15 years. By Pascale Hofmeier. Illustrations: Aurel Märki

(From "Horizons" no. 110 September 2016)​​​

The present culture is slow to change

What has changed in the academic world after 15 years of promoting gender equality? According to the statistics: not enough.

If they haven't already realised it, then by the time they've finished their doctorate, talented scholars will have grasped that an academic career is rarely possible without night shifts, weekend work, long research trips abroad, temporary employment and low starting salaries. Having to take on such a major commitment despite uncertain prospects of success means that many are dissuaded from ever embarking on an academic career. This is especially the case with women who would like to start a family. Because female academics "are often still under greater pressure than their male colleagues when it comes to trying to combine career, marriage and family. And this also influences their chances for an academic career". This is the conclusion of the report 'Dual career couples at Swiss Universities' of 2012. It evaluated the third phase of the Swiss Federal Equal Opportunity at Universities Programme, which has been running since the year 2000 and is meanwhile under the auspices of Swissuniversities. It is funded to the tune of several million francs a year.

French-speaking Switzerland is ahead

Since the Programme was started, equal-opportunity offices and other such structures have been set up at universities, and action plans developed to promote equal opportunity. Kindergarten places at universities have been expanded, in some places even doubled. Mentoring programmes and specific postdoc funding programmes for women have been set up. And the SNSF has been involved since 2001 in providing project and career support on an equal-opportunity basis. It has given monies to promote equal opportunity, and since 2013 it has been providing funding to ease the burden on women and men who are responsible for looking after children. Innumerable evaluations and reports have been drawn up on the efforts made over the past 15 years.

The impact of these many parallel measures has been as follows: since 2002, the proportion of women professors has doubled, going from 9.7% to just under 20%. However, compared to other European countries, Switzerland is in the lower middle rankings. In 2015, almost 37% of newly appointed professors were women.

It's clear that Switzerland has failed to achieve its goal of ensuring that 25% of all professors were women by 2016. "For Switzerland, it wasn't a very realistic goal", says Martina Weiss, the General Secretary of Swissuniversities. The Swiss Federal Statistical Office has forecast that this goal will not be achieved before 2023. Weiss also warns of using this number as the only yardstick. It is more meaningful to compare universities with each other and to differentiate instead between different subject areas. For example, the University of St. Gallen has tripled its proportion of women professors since 2000 – it stands today at 12.8%. Furthermore, on the level of assistant professor, the goal of 40% women is within reach. This progress is particularly noticeable in those subjects that already have a large percentage of women, such as the humanities and social sciences. "There, the proportion of women professors is in some cases 50%", says Weiss. And French-speaking Switzerland is a little ahead of German-speaking Switzerland in this regard. There, women often work in 80% jobs. A further reason for the high percentage of women professors in western Switzerland can be seen at the University of Geneva, which has decided that the shortlists for new appointments should include at least 30% women. If this quota is not met, then the faculty in question has to explain why to university management. The University of Lausanne is planning a similar measure from 2017 onwards.

Only an iron will succeeds

Overall, the chances of success for women in academia have improved a little over the past 15 years – as have their circumstances for being able to combine a family and an academic career. Nevertheless, the shift in our culture and in our organisational structures is taking place more slowly in university institutes themselves. "Here we still need to be patient", says Weiss. The management of a university can send out signals that it wants to promote part-time working and job-sharing. But such a policy can only be implemented by the line managers in the faculties and institutes.

And this is where more action is required. "Young female researchers often don't insist on their rights to promotion and part-time work because their line managers are also their research partners", says Patricia Felber, a social geographer who is coordinating several mentoring programmes. She is also the author of the report 'Assessment of the career situation of young female scientists in Switzerland', published by the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences. Then there is the discrepancy between the job description on paper and what's actually demanded on an informal basis. This is a major hurdle for young families, and also a reason why coordinating career and family still takes an iron will and a lot of creativity.

"It's high time to demystify academic careers", says Felber. She means the culture that leads many to have a bad conscience when they leave the office at 5 p.m. She's simply saying out loud what many academics, both men and women, don't dare to think: "Even at a university, a job is just a job". Pascale Hofmeier is a science editor at the SNSF."

Pascale Hofmeier is a science editor at the SNSF.