Striking for greater equality at EPFL

EPFL’s campus was one of the sites of the 14 June women’s strike. A UNIL-EPFL collective of female staff and students used the opportunity to deliver a manifesto to EPFL’s Senior Management.

© 2019 EPFL

On 14 June, a group of around 300 people gathered under the curves of the Rolex Learning Center at 11am for the women’s strike. They were responding to the call to strike issued by the UNIL-EPFL collective, which is made up of female students and staff members.

The event kicked off when the collective read out the manifesto it had prepared – a list of demands that include equal pay, recognition of the work involved in raising children, and eliminating gender violence. The group handed their manifesto over to Senior Management, which was represented by Caroline Kuyper, the Vice President for Finances, and Andreas Mortensen, the Vice President for Research. Caroline Kuyper then spoke, thanking the strikers for their action and their demands, which “are in line with initiatives that Senior Management is working on in order to make further progress towards equal opportunity on our campus.”

The collective then asked the demonstrators to sign the manifesto, before inviting them to a picnic lunch. At 3pm, the EPFL and UNIL strikers gathered again and headed to Lausanne to join a march in the center of town.

An event designed to spur change

“The 1991 strike turned out to be an effective catalyst for improving women’s opportunities and working conditions in Switzerland. I hope this year’s strike will have the same positive effect,” says Helene Füger, who heads up EPFL’s Equal Opportunities Office. “Our School has made a considerable amount of progress, even though we still have a ways to go. But I find people are really motivated, which is extremely important.”

Building awareness about gender bias

One of the steps taken at EPFL has been to encourage gender equality in hiring. The School started offering seminars in late 2017 to help people identify their own gender biases when evaluating candidates. The first to take these seminars were the members of Senior Management, the school deans and the heads of EPFL’s research institutes. Participants go through various exercises illustrating how the prejudices and stereotypes that they hold unconsciously influence their judgment and behavior – and how being aware of those biases can help them make more objective decisions. Starting next year, the seminars will become mandatory for members of student selection committees. People on EPFL hiring committees will also be encouraged to look more proactively for female applicants. Senior Management has set a target of offering 40% of open faculty positions to women within the next five years.

Bringing paychecks in line

A study of EPFL salaries – conducted using the Logib application developed by Switzerland’s Federal Office for Gender Equality – found that the “unexplained” difference between men’s and women’s salaries fell from 1.9% in 2015 to 1.3% today. That implies the wage gap is shrinking, but does it necessarily mean individual employees’ pay has become more equal? “It’s more likely,” says Füger. “But if anyone has any doubts, they should speak directly with human resources.”

Increasing paternity leave to four weeks

Gender equality also means helping parents achieve a better work-life balance. Amendments to the ETH Personnel Ordinance that are currently under discussion would introduce two major improvements: first, an extension of paternity leave from two to four weeks; and second, paid leave for employees who need to take time off to care for a family member, such as an elderly parent. “Let’s hope these two amendments are approved,” says Füger. “I believe EPFL has an important role to play in promoting women’s careers in science and engineering in Switzerland.”

Senior Management agreed to allow staff members who wished to take part in the strike and related events on 14 June to do so during their working hours.

Gender equality at EPFL in figures

  • At end-2018, 16% of faculty and 28% of students were women.
  • Women account for 31% of professors hired since 2015.
  • The total capacity of the School’s three daycare centers was increased from 187 children to 230 in 2018 – and 44 more spots will be added in 2020 thanks to a new daycare center in the Vortex building.
  • The Robert Gnehm grant was introduced in late 2018 to help postdocs who become new parents. The grant lets them spend more time with their newborn without having to put their research completely on hold.