Women and science, a “solid glass ceiling”
26 April 2018
In scientific disciplines, women remain underrepresented in positions of responsibility, despite their increasing numbers.
Anglophones call this phenomenon the leaky pipe issue, or problem of the pierced pipe. The metaphor lacks finesse, but it illustrates a phenomenon that affects all scientific and technological disciplines : the increasing under-representation of women as they move up the hierarchy. In science, a traditionally male bastion, the glass ceiling is particularly strong.
An example among others? At the Centre hospitalier universitaire vaudois (CHUV) in Lausanne, women are in the majority –not only during their studies, but also among assistant doctors– with a proportion of 62% in 2017. Then there is a drastic fall in the percentage : only 28% of senior doctors and 12% of heads of departments are women. It was not until January 2018 that the CHUV finally appointed a woman as head of department for the first time in its history.
In other scientific disciplines, there is little evidence of better results. At the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich), less than 10% of physics professors are women. The same is true in chemistry, where female students are yet in the majority.
Admittedly, in recent years, there has been an increase in awareness on the part of academic institutions. EPFL has thus set itself the objective of reaching a figure of 35% of female doctoral students. Efforts are also being made to promote women’s careers, in particular by awarding prizes for the promotion of female entrepreneurship in science.
A male confort zone
But, are these laudable initiatives sufficient in the face of the hyper-competitive nature of research, which requires young scientists to reach certain key milestones at an age that is readily combined with family life? In the absence of adequate hosting structures for children in Switzerland, how many talented scientists have been forced to abandon their career plans?
Ursula Keller, founder of the ETH Women Professors Forum, is the first woman to hold a chair in physics at ETH Zurich in the 1990s. She advocates for a fundamental reform of a male-dominated system in which women have played a marginal role for too long. The physicist even invokes, for equal talent, the benefits of introducing quotas in order to combat the under-representation of women in higher positions with higher responsibilities.
There is still a need for a profound change in mentalities.
Because male professors, when choosing their colleagues, still, too often, tend to select young scientists who resemble them. It may be time for them to step outside their comfort zone. Research is not immune to gender stereotypes. It is crucial that men and women are equitably represented, so that progress does not belong to only one half of humanity.