Published July 22, 2020 | Version v1
Report Open

Report of the Commission on the Status of Women Faculty at EPFL


This report presents the results of a study conducted in 2019-2020 by the Commission on the Status of Women Faculty at EPFL (hereafter ‘the Commission’). The goal of the study was to construct as comprehensive as possible a picture of the status of women professors at EPFL and to make recommendations for improvement of that status, to be implemented by the administration. To do so, the Commission collected quantitative data on resource allocation (salary, start-up package, yearly budget, space), as well as fundraising. It also considered hiring and promotion practices, gender distribution of leadership positions, and grievance numbers and their gender distribution. In addition, a team of external experts led by Prof. Eric Davoine (University of Fribourg) interviewed 51 professors of both genders (including Deans) to capture the qualitative dimension of faculty experiences such as work/ life balance, gender climate and the integration of new faculty members. Finally, based on recommendations from the interviewees, several focus group sessions were conducted to elicit feedback from the professors at-large prior to the formulation of the Commission’s recommendations. 

The results, by and large, point to a reasonably well-matched distribution of resources between men and women professors at EPFL. In particular, the salary analysis did not show a systematic gender effect, although detailed analysis raised questions about specific cases. Thus, the Commission recommends a pair-matching salary analysis to identify possible issues and correct them. Space allocation data suffer from a lack of reliability and, as a result, the Commission is not able to conclude with confidence that the allocation of space is gender-neutral. More systematic data collection across the entire institution is recommended to allow streamlined future replication of this study. 

The evaluation of work/life balance included access to daycare for children, teaching relief and the stop-the-clock policy for maternity and parenthood, as well as the issue of dual careers. The findings suggest that daycare availability remains a challenge for parents. Consequently, the Commission recommends making daycare access a priority with the goal to ensure that all parents at EPFL (students, post-docs, staff, professors) seeking onsite daycare are able to obtain it without being placed on a waiting list. An additional family-friendly measure is to strongly discourage holding meetings before 8:30a and after 5p. While a stop-the-clock policy and teaching relief are implemented for maternity, the interviewees pointed out that there is little in place for other parents (fathers, non-birthing parents, adoptive parents), perpetuating traditional gender roles by which women are responsible for looking after children. Thus, a recommendation is to implement parental leave (1 month) as well as a 6-month stop-the-clock policy while on tenure-track for the non-birthing parent. The Commission also recommends enhancing the visibility of the existing dual-career program, as many interviewees were unaware of its existence. 

The numbers of women professors are low, resulting in a feeling of isolation that stems from being a minority, a point underscored by all the women interviewed. The numbers are increasing, but there remains a deficit at the higher ranks of Associate and Full Professors. Many interviewees praised the recent hiring search committee policies aiming at increasing the number of women professors hired. The efforts should continue and be monitored closely to ensure the target offers to women candidates remain at greater than 40%. Furthermore, the Commission recommends budgeting for the annual hiring of one woman Full Professor as a competition across all Schools. 

As is typical of most academic environments, the small number of women professors results in the over-solicitation of the few who are there. To mitigate this issue and its attendant negative impact on women professors, the Commission recommends prioritizing the participation of women professors in committees that make decisions about promotion, funding allocation and research directions while discharging them from work on other committees. The small number of women also results in under-representation in the leadership at all levels, which urgently requires redress. 

The gender climate is also tied to the institutional culture, as it is pervasive throughout. Salient amongst gender climate issues identified in interviews were the grievance procedures, a reported lack of respect for women professors, and unequal gender representation at EPFL-wide or School events. Evidently, addressing the culture of an institution is a complex affair. However, the Commission considers that bias awareness must extend to the student body and recommends the organization of bias training for incoming undergraduate and PhD students to delineate acceptable behaviors at EPFL. Furthermore, the creation of a gender equality committee that includes both men and women professors is recommended for each School, with coordination across EPFL to establish common best practices. The visibility of women on the EPFL campus should increase and go along with the establishment of a gender-aware communication style in all official communications. The grievance procedures were roundly criticized by most interviewees as a source of undue stress and, possibly, gender bias, as the fraction of women targeted is much higher than that of women professors at EPFL. A complete overhaul of the grievance procedures is recommended. As this work is already underway, the Commission expects a more transparent procedure to be put in place and recommends that it include regular evaluation to identify possible structural issues. Additionally, the Commission recommends the creation of a workshop for senior leadership that builds on the implicit bias awareness training and focuses on leadership skills and fostering diversity. 

The interviewees raised the issue of the management culture at EPFL, which not only relates to gender but, due to the predominance of men in numbers and in leadership positions, affects women disproportionately. The Commission recommends the establishment of greater transparency regarding resource and space allocation, committee work, teaching load and, most importantly, the decision-making process. 

The lack of integration of tenure-track professors and other newly-hired professors at EPFL was a point raised by a number of interviewees. A training course has been put in place for tenure-track professors and is planned to be run regularly. The Commission is very supportive of these efforts that will allow faster and more complete integration, both from the practical standpoint and from the institutional culture point of view. A mentorship program open to all professors should be established, to provide professors who seek it the opportunity to receive mentoring from a more senior professor, well versed in the inner workings of academia in general and EPFL in particular. 

The professors at EPFL are generally satisfied with their professional environment and find the facilities and opportunities afforded by their position to be outstanding. The study reported on here has uncovered specific points that require attention and it is the Commission’s belief that the information provided is of high enough quality to be the basis for mitigating action that will successfully address the issues.


Report of the commission on the status of women professors_final_version_July_22_2020.pdf