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Addressing gender inequality in Academia in Switzerland

In order to address gender inequalities at universities and research institutions in Switzerland, we demand effective changes concerning the protection from harassment and other hostile behaviour that hinders career development and psychologically damages women in academia. Specifically, we provide suggestions to improve conditions for reporting, managing, handling, and administrating grievances.

The organization of 500 Women Scientists Switzerland[1] is very concerned about the lack of gender equality at universities and research institutions in Switzerland, and the prevailing adverse conditions women experience in the scientific environment, specifically in academia. Furthermore, as underscored by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 5[2], achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls is still one of the major societal challenges even in the most economically advanced countries.

Science is rife with gender inequality, women representing only around 30% of the global research pool[3] with numbers dramatically dropping at every step along the path to professorship. In Switzerland, only 23% of full professors are women, while women constitute 52% of the university students[4]. It is questionable whether the number of female faculty can be increased without effective and appropriate measures.

The prevalence of adverse working conditions, such as bullying and (psychological and sexual) harassment, to which women are more often exposed than men, could be an important factor underlying gender inequality. It has been reported that in Switzerland, 28% of women and 10% of men experienced sexual harassment in the workplace[5], and although Swiss law provides involved persons with numerous protections, these issues are rarely investigated by the judicial independent system. The importance and the frequency of these events, which also include subtle discrimination at the work place and affect more than 50% of women in academia[6], are often underestimated due to the difficulties that the affected persons encounter when reporting. And yet it is the duty and obligation of universities to provide safe work environments, protect women’s rights to equal treatment, and take a firm stance against bullying and harassment to mitigate the loss of women and thus talent from science and academia.

Change will be most effective when upper hierarchical levels embrace and support it. Given the pronounced power imbalance among students, postdocs, junior faculty, and professors, universities as employers have a special role in the protection of individuals whose careers are still vulnerable and dependent on recommendations by professors.

We therefore call on universities and research institutions to contribute to the advancement of women in science in Switzerland by guaranteeing the right to equal treatment in the following ways:

  1. A common code of conduct for all universities and research institutions should be formulated and prominently published on the institutions’ home pages. The institutions should hold their staff accountable to abide by this code of conduct (including at off-campus work activities) and incorporate it into employment contracts.

  2. Compulsory diversity, inclusion, and equity training for all staff and students as a preventive measure in order to increase awareness and to build a common knowledge base and vocabulary around this topic. The content and format of these trainings[7] can be tailored to the needs of each institution and should be selected according to evidence-based criteria.

  3. To protect and support concerned persons of (psychological or sexual) harassment the following measures should be taken:

    • Institutions should provide sufficient and adequate communication of the definition of inappropriate behaviour and the consequential institutional response to such behavior.​

    • Institutions should prominently publish clear processes for dealing with inappropriate behavior which outline procedural information, identify responsible competent persons, provide an overview of the evaluation authorities, present independent experts, communicate consequences and sanctions, and give access to relevant statistics.

    • Institutions should set up a safe and secure, independent third-party platform to file complaints that is easily accessible and available to all employees and students. This platform should guarantee a balanced consideration of priorities without bias from dominant individual interests.

    • Investigations into misconduct must be undertaken without stereotypical presumptions, reversals of the burden of proof and disproportionate density of probative evidence by a qualified and independent third party outside of academia.

    • An independent third-party Swiss-wide network of counselling help-centers[8] should be established, in which trained psychologists, mediators and lawyers provide services.

The organization of 500 Women Scientists Switzerland believes that the issues raised in this letter concerning the protection of women scientists are essential.

Darcy Molnar

Coordinator of the Zurich pod of 500 Women Scientists

Giovanna Brancati, Zurich pod

Vanessa Leite, Zurich pod

Claudia Kasper

Coordinator of the Bern-Fribourg pod of 500 Women Scientists

Silvia Crespo-Pomar, Bern pod

Andrea Fortier, Bern pod

Ana I. Benítez-Mateos, Bern pod

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