Talented women graduates face gender inequality in their careers

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2018 International Women’s Day at EPFL Rolex Learning Center © EPFL
2018 International Women’s Day at EPFL Rolex Learning Center © EPFL

For the first time, an EPFL survey has traced the careers of its women graduates. Its findings - together with several alumnae’s personal accounts - show how effectively these women have integrated into the job market. The survey also reveals, however, the roadblocks to their professional advancement along with their hopes for greater gender equality.

Of EPFL’s more than 35,000 alumni, a little under 7,000 are women, or some 20% of the total. This percentage remains low, even though it has risen in recent years - 68% of alumnae were under 35 years of age in 2021. That said, serious disparities persist among EPFL’s various disciplines: although women account for more than 48% of life-sciences graduates, for example, this figure falls to a mere 9% for electrical engineering and 7% for mechanical engineering. The majority of female graduates (64%) stop at a Master’s degree, while 24% go on to earn a PhD. Once they have their degree in hand, what sort of careers do these women pursue? To find out, the EPFL Alumni department conducted its first-ever survey of women graduates at the end of 2020. The questionnaire was sent to just over 5,000 women, of whom 768 responded.

One thing became immediately clear: EPFL’s alumnae make the most of their diplomas after graduation. 92% reported that they had one or more paid activities, while only 6% were neither working nor involved in research. This workforce participation rate outstrips the Swiss average. According to the Swiss Federal Statistical Office (FSO), 83% of working-age women in the country have a paid activity. Another telling indicator is that 41% of EPFL alumnae aged 25 to 54 have at least one child and work full-time - a figure that is only 17% among the wider Swiss population. These women work in a variety of industries: 20% in education and research; 16% in architecture, design and construction; 17% in healthcare; 11% in manufacturing; and 6% in information technology.

After obtaining their degrees, EPFL’s female graduates primarily enter technical fields and professions in which women are often still in the minority. And whereas more than 80% of alumnae surveyed said they are satisfied with their professional positions, many problematic issues remain. One significant roadblock to women’s careers is that they sometimes have to work in unwelcoming environments. Depending on the setting, the hostility can take various forms, ranging from disparaging or stereotypical remarks to outright inappropriate behavior. "When you enter the working world, you have a lot of aspirations," says Azalée Truan, who graduated from EPFL with an architecture degree and now heads up her own firm. "The construction sites I’ve worked in are very masculine, and it’s hard for a woman to speak one-on-one with a man in the same way that men do between themselves." Nearly 50% of those surveyed believed that an unfriendly working environment had "somewhat" or "considerably" hampered their professional development. This is something they typically began struggling with even before they graduate, as Manon Poffet, who obtained a mechanical engineering degree at EPFL in 2020, tells us. "I was often asked: ’But why did you choose to major in mechanical engineering?’ I had the feeling that male students never asked each other this question, but rather that I was being singled out because of my gender."

On a more positive note, the survey also revealed that EPFL alumnae have performed well in their careers. 32% of respondents work in managerial or executive positions, a percentage that rises to 48% for women between 36 and 45 years of age. Is this due to their EPFL-stamped diploma? The answer seems to be yes - according to the FSO, in 2020 only 37% of women in the same age bracket held managerial positions in Switzerland. This indicates that EPFL alumnae are well positioned to address the need for greater female representation in certain professions, particularly at an executive level. In early 2021, the Swiss Federal Council passed a law requiring that women occupy at least 30% of the seats on the boards of directors of large listed companies and make up at least 20% of their senior management teams.

As regards compensation, nearly 54% of respondents reported earning more than CHF 100,000 per year. Here again, these figures should be compared to Switzerland’s overall female population, whose median annual salary is CHF 78,143, against CHF 112,879 for EPFL and ETH Zurich alumnae. Nevertheless - and as borne out by FSO statistics - the gender pay gap in Swiss companies is still an issue at every level.

Work-life balance remains a key issue affecting women’s careers. Of the survey respondents, 41% of women without children - and 88% of women with children - reported having to make compromises. These can range from scaling back to part-time employment to leaving the job market altogether. The compromising appears to be skewed according to gender, since the figures are much lower for partners with children, of whom only 61% had to make compromises. Juggling your career and family life is an issue that is particularly relevant to Assia Garbinato, an EPFL computer science graduate and Chief Data Officer at Romande Energie: "These are tough choices, but they have to be respected. Women have the right to have a career and shouldn’t have to apologize for it."

Although changes in society at large may offer some solutions to the work-life balance problem - such as paternity leave and better access to childcare facilities - inequality within couples remains very much an issue. More than 59% of survey respondents said that having a supportive partner when it comes to career choices is a decisive factor in career development.

Corporate culture also plays an important role, and employers have a responsibility to create a working environment that promotes gender equality. Managers and team leaders can make a major contribution here - 76% of alumnae surveyed identified this as a key criterion, and some said it was crucial for their professional development. "One issue that women often raise is the need for support in gaining self-confidence," notes Garbinato. "I would advise women to steer clear of the ’impostor syndrome’ - it can be a real setback." Another important factor is the scarcity of active, high-profile women in some industries - that limits the number of role models that EPFL women architects and engineers can look up to. "Few women start their own businesses," says Céline Arethens, a EPFL mathematics graduate and entrepreneur in digital technology consulting. "Some women put up imaginary roadblocks for themselves. We need to learn how to get past our fears and have the courage to strike out on our own."

This survey - and the respondents’ testimonials - clearly show that, even though EPFL’s alumnae represent a dynamic, high-profile force in the working world, many are still lacking an environment conducive to their success. There are a number of critical issues that need to be addressed in order to establish greater gender equality in the workplace and inspire the next generation of women scientists and engineers. Constructive measures could include making alternative public policy choices, changing corporate cultures, building awareness of gender bias and the need to combat all forms of sexism, and encouraging a more equal distribution of tasks at home. For women engineers, investing in their networks and personal development are also essential.

The full findings of this survey as well as the descriptive report can be found here.

Many thanks to: Manon Poffet (EPFL, Mechanical Engineering 2020) and Clara Migliarini (University of Fribourg, Communications, 2018) for conducting the survey; M.I.S. Trend for additional advice and analyses; and all the women who took part in the survey.