Promoting the research careers of women

Not a week goes by these days without a news report on equal opportunity - and the latest is the 2014 Global Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum (WEF). This report analyzed gender gaps in 142 countries based on economic, political, education and health criteria.

The results for Switzerland are sobering: even though the status of women has improved continuously, progress has slowed down and even come to a halt of late. With respect to academia and research, we note that there is no significant gap in education in Switzerland, yet there is a pronounced gender gap when it comes to the senior or managerial levels, and in the amount of funding allocated. The percentage of female PhD students is rising steadily, yet the percentage of women decreases with each step up the academic career ladder. More women are involved in early career stages, but they are not promoted, and often decide to quit research and sacrifice their academic careers. I believe they do this based on subconscious assumptions or misdirected beliefs, for instance, that having a family and an academic career are mutually exclusive, or even – god forbid – that men are better suited for science than women.

Through its policies and funding schemes the SNSF can influence these perceptions. As a first step to encourage women, we hope to initiate a new funding scheme called PRIMA (promoting women in academia), that should boost the academic careers of the most talented women researchers at the late postdoctoral stage. The goal is to promote and retain this group of talented women scientists as candidates for future Swiss university positions. The scheme plans to generate a strong network of contacts and training opportunities, and the mentoring of these women will connect them to established leaders in scientific research.

The efforts of the SNSF can only go part way, however: each host institution and research center must ensure that their independent women researchers feel welcome and encouraged. We need a strong pipeline of successful female scientists so that unconscious, and often untrue, assumptions about what is needed for a successful scientific career no longer prompt women to quit science. The future is rosy if we rise to the challenge!

Susan Gasser
President of the Gender Equality Commission of the SNSF

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