Women in academic careers10.10.2018

Changing the landscape of Swiss science


Susan Gasser surrounded by Department of Biology FGLS student representatives, Vivian Link, Rachel Korn, Marisa Almeida and Guillermo Garcia.

“One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time” (A. Gide). This is one of the meaningful quotes that Susan Gasser, Director and group leader at the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research and Prof. at the University of Basel, reminded us of yesterday. She gave an inspirational talk in our Department. Our FGLS Graduate students’ representatives invited her in the framework of our Department Seminar Series.

Research career, guidelines

After having described the difficulty to be a scientist and consequently the amount of passion that is required to embark upon such a career, she gave much insightful advice addressed in particular to young scientists at the beginning of their professional path. Mobility, curiosity for different fields or risk-taking are among the skills that will help them to progress in the scientific world. However another important issue for the scientific community was discussed further.

Where are the women?

Even if the majority of people believe that science has no gender, the reality is often different. Numerous studies have shown that there is obviously a gender bias (often unconscious). Prof. Gasser underlined that the consequences are a persistent drop in the number of women in academic careers, particularly on their professional path from Postdoc to Professor. In 2004 there were less than 10% of female professors in Swiss universities, in 2014 less than 20%. The progression is slow. How ever women are as competent, as talented and as interested as men are. Guillermo Garcia, one of the host of the seminar to added: It was shocking for us to learn that the gender gap really opens up only after the PhD and that it was so high” .

Despite good intentions, implicit gender bias and unconscious assumptions influence seemingly objective decisions. To increase the difficulty of the situation, both men and women share the same assumptions about gender. Fortunately, programs such as PRIMA (SNF) aim at reversing this tendency by supporting early woman career. These initiatives and hopefully others in the future will help to increase the number of women in Swiss academia, avoid loss of excellent female researchers at the postdoc to PI transition and raise the numbers of female Professor in Switzerland.

Sven Bacher, group leader in our Department has deplored this situation for a long time. A lot of his female PhD student did not pursue their career after their PhD. For him, a solution could be to give the possibility to have a “maître-assistant” position earlier in the career in order to split time between family and job. However, this solution would be satisfying only if it could be possible to apply for a PI position later on, which is currently not possible.

Find out more about this subject:

Clear explanation on how avoid gender bias when recruiting by equality office UNIL

Fribourg Graduate School of Life Sciences