Despite Europe’s reputation as a bastion for liberal ideals, women are underrepresented at the top tiers of Swiss academia. This has not gone unnoticed and there are several past and current programs attempting to equalize these numbers and promote women in the same numbers as men in the academy. The purpose of this article is to review the historical and contemporary reasons for this disparity and my observations from multiple discussions with professors and graduate students, as well as to contrast this with the similar issues that face academia in the United States and the rest of Europe.

The historical context of women’s liberation in Switzerland is, I believe, a necessary first step in dissecting the current situation in Swiss academia. This historical context is what truly differentiates the situation in Switzerland from its peer nations and provides a perspective on the cultural implications of woman in the workplace. In my first conversation with a male professor at University of Zurich I was informed of the fact that women did not have the right to vote in Switzerland until 1971. The professor was amused that I found this shocking. For comparison, in Denmark women received the right to vote in 1915, in Germany in 1918, and in in the USA in 1920. However, in neighboring Liechtenstein, women did not win the right to vote until 1984. The diversity amongst European countries in their application of women’s suffrage explains some of the differences in the higher education system. Although the Bologna process has worked towards a more cohesive higher education system across Europe, there are still vast differences in prestige, cost, and accessibility of higher education within Europe. Even within the three countries that we visited as part of GPP 2017, the employment prospects of graduate students and compensation of professors varied greatly. Similarly, the inequality of women in academia varies across countries.

According to a European Union commissioned report (embed link:, while in Switzerland women receive more than 53% of post-secondary degrees, there is a “leaky pipeline” as they continue in academia. Woman make up 44% of those receiving doctoral degrees in 2012, which is an increase from 29% in 2000. Interestingly, despite stereotypes, this is equally true for both the humanities and sciences. These numbers may not seem concerning, however in 2012 women made up only 25% of professors in Switzerland and less than 18% of full professors. In Denmark, the numbers are slightly better, with women comprising 33% of professors and in Italy in 2013 women represented 35% of Associate professors and 21% of full professors. In the United States in 2013, women made up 44% of all professors, but only 30% of full professors according to the National Center for Education Statistics (embed link: Obviously this problem is not specific to Swiss Universities, but there are compelling cultural and social reasons that Switzerland has been unable to reach its goal of 25% women full professors by 2012.

In many of my conversations with Swiss academics I was told that the biggest obstacle they see for women to go back to work after having children is affordable childcare. Again, this is not a problem unique to Switzerland. In the United States childcare subsidies such as the Headstart program are reserved for those living below the poverty line, which disqualifies the middle class. In contrast, Swedish childcare is subsidized for with a maximum out of pocket expense of approximately 150 euros (only about 10% of the actual cost) and all school is completely state funded once the child reaches 3 years old. Switzerland, however, only subsidized 20% of childcare costs, costs that, like most goods and services in the country, are much higher than neighboring countries and state run childcare/school doesn’t begin until age 4. In an article by Monica Butler (2007) (embed link:, she argues that the subsidies afforded by the government actually discourage women, especially highly educated women, from participating in the work force. Butler says that the Swiss tax code disincentivizes dual-income families and once a woman begins working more than part time her income is completely subsumed by childcare costs. This is not even to mention the long waiting lists and difficulty finding an appropriate childcare facility, a concern that was brought up to me multiple times by my informants.

Other tax issues particular to Switzerland disinsentivize dual income families, and according those I spoke with are a result of the traditional values of Swiss culture. There have been multiple referendums and suggestions of revisions to the Swiss tax code that would incentivize women to return to the work force after having children, but few of them have been implemented. Part of this is the Swiss pride in the standard of living that can be maintained on a single income. Because most of the jobs in the Swiss economy are well paying, there was a certain pride expressed to me by those I spoke with in being able to support a family on one income. This is contrary to the United States, where I have observed very many families being unable to survive on a single income, even with a white collar or highly educated occupation.

Of course, these issues of tax policy and childcare are not exclusive to Swiss academia, but relate to much of the economy. Based on my conversations and observations, there seemed to be two factors particularly affecting retention of women in academia in Switzerland: mentors and competition. The lack of female mentors who understand the challenges associated with being a woman in academia make it more difficult for up-and-coming women to model their careers and have realistic aspirations for their future. This is not to say that male mentors cannot adequately mentor or be role models for women, but when navigating issues such as childcare and maternity leave is much more difficult without support from an advisor or mentor who has had a similar experience. The other issue of competition appeared to me to be mostly as issue of perception. Many of the women graduate students I spoke to were not confident about their future success on the job market and had internalized many of the messages of their culture: that being a woman in academia is difficult and that they would have to sacrifice aspects of their personal life in order to have a career. Additionally, many of the graduate students I spoke with were not from Switzerland and they had vastly different perspectives on how being a woman would affect (or not affect) their career. For example, a Ukrainian woman in her second year of a doctoral program at University of Zurich seemed almost offended when I asked her how being a woman would affect her career. This is contrasted with a Swiss graduate student at the University of Basal who immediately launched into a conversation about how she was worried about being able to pursue her career while navigating her personal life. These differences in perception may contribute to the leaky pipeline issue in Swiss academia. If women believe that they are being set up for failure, they are, of course, less likely to persevere when research becomes difficult or continue on to the next step in the academic hierarchy. Certain grants that are only available to women in academia can address the issue of competition, by allowing for special funding for research or for childcare. Examples of this are the PRIMA grant for early career researchers and the “Stay on Track” program at University of Basal.

A controversial proposal to address this issue is the implementation of quotas in hiring professors. Because most universities in Switzerland are funded by the government, the Canton can apply quotas to hiring. This of course brings up many issues relating to equal opportunity and concerns that less qualified applicants would receive very competitive jobs based on their sex. However, there is limited evidence that this would happen based on studies of countries enacting similar quotas (Devine, 1976) (embed link:

Overall, the situation for women in Swiss academia is promising. Recent strides in retention do not meet government goals, but have demonstrated some success in promoting women to higher levels in academia. Cultural changes take time and will continue to progress as more and more women are able to juggle the demands of being a woman in academia and take on societal pressures to adhere to traditional gender roles.