International Women's Day

International Women's Day aims to commemorate the cultural, political and socio-economic achievements of women and to draw attention to issues such as gender equality and violence and abuse against women. These issues obviously concern us all, and are part of UNIL's strategic priorities. Much could be said. On a personal level, my participation as Dean in numerous professorial appointment commissions has served as an eye-opener, as I have become aware of the unconscious biases that we all have in this area, no matter how well intentioned we are. As a Rector, I have also seen in co-designing equality objectives that neither good intentions nor goodwill are enough. Everyone will certainly agree on the principle, but putting into practice an ambitious equality policy followed by everyone is sometimes difficult. So how do we go about it and where do we start? I think we need to use the expertise we have at UNIL. So I would like to highlight some initiatives and points of view of specialists at our university.

As Marie Pasquier, project manager at the Equal Opportunities Office at the University of Lausanne, explains, many measures have already been taken to advance the issue of equality on campus: support for women's careers, preparation of a survey on well-being at work and at school, "Tremplin" subsidies for women's access to professorships, "REGARD" workshops, awareness-raising modules on gender bias and inclusive communication, creation of the Fondation Accueil Petite Enfance EPFL-UNIL and additional childcare facilities, participation of an equality delegate in the appointment commissions, the launch of a project on gender equality and digital transformation in collaboration with the EPFL and the HES-SO, the installation of menstrual protection dispensers to combat menstrual insecurity - the areas of action, either in place or to be developed, are well defined and versatile. However, there is still a lot to be done, explains the Vice-Rector for Equality, Diversity and Careers, Liliane Michalik, in particular to boost the recruitment of women, to change the dominant mentalities and to integrate intersectional components (i.e. the situation of people who accumulate several types of discrimination against them, such as gender identity, skin colour and sexual orientation). If the Rectorate has set itself some challenges in this area for the coming years, what about the faculties? What are the good practices that have proven successful, their concerns and desires for the future?

At the Global Observatory for Women, Sport, Physical Education and Physical Activity, Lucie Schoch, Senior Lecturer and Researcher, is helping to build disciplinary expertise to advance the issue of equality in sport. In Switzerland, participation in sport is evenly distributed between the genders. This is by far not the case in other countries. However, easier access to sport not only leads to better physical and mental health, but also to the development of self-confidence, interpersonal skills and leadership skills that can be transferred elsewhere. Launched in 2021 in partnership with UNESCO, the Global Observatory on Women, Sport, Physical Education and Physical Activity aims to network existing platforms at the international level, monitor the figures of federations and identify the types of operations that can serve as an example for interested governments, particularly in terms of combating sexual abuse in sport. More than social justice, it is therefore the empowerment of women in the world that is targeted by this field struggle against gender inequalities.

At the HEC Faculty, it is the recruitment of professors that remains the cornerstone of equality, confirms Dean Marianne Schmid Mast, Professor of organisational behaviour. In addition to a better gender balance in appointment committees and awareness of built-in biases, she believes it is necessary to actively search for female candidates. Such a practice would both increase the number of effective female applications and uncover unexpected profiles that could lead to further collaborations - a "collateral gain" that should not be underestimated! She would also like to maximise the attractiveness of UNIL when it comes to recruiting female researchers internationally. Switzerland offers an excellent quality of life (particularly in terms of access to school), which is difficult to quantify on paper, but which could be convincing. Increased permeability between professional and private life could also be beneficial to women's careers: in the United States, for example, some end-of-day aperitifs are open to female researchers who want to bring their children. The children play with each other while their mothers network - just like their male colleagues.

The family... It is logically at the centre of the debate on equality, whatever the field of research. As Liliane Michalik points out, it is often around the crèche that female solidarity networks are built. The campus is no exception. However, she finds it abnormal that pregnant researchers still feel anxious about talking to their superiors. The pressure and guilt that young mothers feel when they return from maternity leave are just as problematic and sometimes lead to painful situations such as burn out. It is essential to reverse the viewpoint and consider that pregnancy is not only a matter for the women, but also for the institution, which must take on this burden like any other HR situation. 

This is what Nicky Le Feuvre, Professor of Sociology at Work and Dean of the SSP, also advocates. Her faculty has also set up a preparatory interview before each maternity leave, which brings together the institute's management, a member of the Deanship and the pregnant woman, in order to relieve the latter of all her supervisory tasks. In addition to individual problems, the aim is to send out strong signals in favour of equality and parenthood. The creation of childcare facilities in the faculty building, the encouragement to speak openly about harassment and sexism, the conduct of studies on career opportunities for female graduates, the filming of videos on recruitment bias: many of these actions are already effective and serve as clear markers. However, she deplores the fact that even the implementation of a multitude of good practices has not yet managed to sufficiently improve the rate of female professors hired within her faculty. Like everywhere else, it stagnates at around 35%. This apparent uniformity of the glass ceiling in women's university careers is the result of mechanisms specific to institutional functioning. An unfortunate observation! Changing this academic culture raises many concrete questions, which show that attacking the notion of a female career means attacking the notion of a career at all. The Dean believes that this requires a complete overhaul of the existing mould and a rethinking of the entire university system, particularly through a reflection on the notions of performance and competitiveness, including the temporalities imposed by the eligibility windows of the funding sources. For my part, I think it is also crucial to reverse our way of thinking: notions of quality and potential impact must imperatively prevail over quantity. In this sense, the women working at UNIL show real competitiveness on the national and international level despite time issues that might seem unfavourable at first (maternity, working hours). 

However, as Nicky Le Feuvre points out, a true equality policy must absolutely integrate the notions of diversity and intersectionality and allocate the necessary financial resources to them, without neglecting the objective of gender equality, which is far from being achieved. Patrick Bodemann, Head of the Department of Vulnerability and Social Medicine (DVMS) at Unisanté, head of the Centre for Vulnerable Populations (CPV), holder of the Chair of Medicine for Vulnerable Populations and Vice-Dean of Teaching and Research at the FBM, embodies a perspective of general and ambulatory internal medicine confronted with the whole range of precarious people (migrants, sex workers, individuals in prison or victims of human trafficking, homeless people). From his point of view, the care he provides must be equitable before being egalitarian, i.e. adapted to the specific needs and socio-economic profiles of patients. However, the pandemic has only deepened pre-existing vulnerabilities and social inequalities. Much remains to be done in the Swiss system, even though it is considered to be efficient. For example, he would like to establish a collaboration between all the faculties of the University of Lausanne around the issue of equity that promotes the inclusion of everyone.

I could of course have taken other testimonies from people who think and act for equality within UNIL. And even though there is still a long way to go, I would like to end this post on a positive note by saying that we have a wealth of internal expertise at UNIL, personal and collective initiatives, cultural activity programmes around equality issues, a Rectorate that makes it a strategic priority and faculties whose Deans are working on concrete action plans. The perception of women in leadership positions has changed significantly in recent years. According to Liliane Michalik, what was once a rather strange exception is now more accepted, thanks in particular to pioneers such as Erna Hamburger and Nouria Hernandez, who have written the history of UNIL. So many opportunities to rejoice despite the challenges that still lie ahead, and to keep the hope of seeing us progress!

To extend these reflections

I invite you to take an interest in the evening « Sexisme en archéologie : des vestiges du passé aux enjeux actuels » organised by the Office of Equality on the occasion of Women's Rights Day on 8 March, which will take the form of a conference and round table, accompanied by a speech by Cesla Amarelle.

UNIL is also proposing an action week against racism from 21 to 25 March.

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