’Women researchers and students are highly ambitious and committed’

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Julia Dannath is the Vice President of Human Resources Development and Leadershi
Julia Dannath is the Vice President of Human Resources Development and Leadership, responsible for diversity at ETH. (Photograph: ETH Zurich)

A newspaper article about a study conducted by the University of Zurich is currently raising a lot of questions. The article claims that women students are less ambitious than their male counterparts and consequently not interested in pursuing a career. This conclusion has alienated many in the ETH community - including Julia Dannath, who as Vice President for Personnel Development and Leadership is responsible for diversity at ETH Zurich. In this interview, she explains why.

What did you think when you read about this study in the media?
I was irritated and frustrated by this peddling of conclusions drawn from the study. As a woman who has embarked on an ambitious career path herself and at the same time started a family with three children, I also feel very personally targeted. And of course, I’m not the only one. This discourse has caused great irritation and annoyance throughout the ETH community. It’s all the more problematic that this debate was triggered by a study that hasn’t yet been published or even peer-reviewed - so I and most of those who speak or write about it don’t actually know what exactly is in it or understand its methodology. So, I can’t comment on the study.

In what way did the conclusions irritate you?
For me, it’s quite a backlash in the debate, one that I wouldn’t have thought possible. I just can’t believe that we are suddenly hearing calls based on media coverage that there’s no longer any need for nursery places, that women should no longer study at all or that efforts to increase the proportion of women among professors should be halted. All the more reason for me to call for a calmer and, above all, factual debate on this complex issue.

What are you telling the ETH community - where does ETH stand in this debate?
One thing up front: I - and I’m sure I speak for the entire ETH community - am incredibly proud of all our lecturers who are showing us how to reconcile an academic career and family. Every day, I see women and men who pursue their high ambitions with great passion, both at work and in their family life. I hope our students draw inspiration from this for their own life journeys. Of course, we know that individuals can have quite different dreams and role expectations - and that’s fine! However, our university is a place of innovation, and we’re proud that more than 8,500 women researchers and students are doing their bit - with great commitment and ambition - to ensure that ETH Zurich is one of the world’s best universities. What I experience at ETH every day in no way coincides with the conclusions that are now making the rounds.

Does ETH now have to modify its strategy based on this debate?
The way the study and the media coverage are now immediately being exploited politically shows that the debate about different role models is still very much needed in society. Naturally, ETH is participating in this debate. But we certainly won’t change our strategy because of sensationalist articles and misogynistic comments. We will look at the study when it’s published and analyse what it means for ETH in concrete terms. But I’d like to remind you that ETH Zurich also has a social and a legal mandate to ensure equal opportunities in education and to promote educational and career opportunities for women in STEM. After all, this mandate from parliament shows that Swiss society already has a different image of women than the one propagated here by some media. We want to and must live up to this mandate. Our goal is to create an environment where all students and researchers (regardless of gender) can reach their full potential. And we will continue to do so.