It seems that this isn’t having the desired effect though, if you look at the figures …
Given that just over 40% of girls earn a science-based Matura, it’s not that bad either, also considering that gender roles are a social phenomenon. We are making efforts to combat this problem as well. We make sure that future teachers – male and female – are aware of gender issues as part of our teacher training. And on International Women’s Day this year, we posted a series of video profiles of female professors at ETH on our social networks. These role models are very important. Furthermore, there is Globi and the Crazy Machine, a children’s book set at ETH (part of the popular Swiss series of books featuring Globi, a cartoon parrot). When we were developing the story together with the publisher, we knew from the outset that we wanted the main character – a professor – to be female.
You are an engineer yourself. How did you end up in that field?
As a child, I always enjoyed building sandcastles and dams with my brothers. Then when I was 15, we went to Marconi Elliott Automation Systems on a school trip, and that was when I realised I wanted to be an engineer. It was while I was studying at Cambridge that I became really interested in soil mechanics – the interaction between buildings, structures and the soil.
When you joined ETH as a professor in 1997, around 7 percent of full professors were women. Today it is around 15 percent. You were the first woman to be appointed as a professor of civil engineering in Switzerland. What was that like for you?
I received a very warm welcome both inside and outside the department. Two colleagues invited me to join their project groups, so I settled into the ETH culture very quickly. Actually, the main challenge for me was not being a woman, it was the language. My German was fairly limited back then.
As a professor, were you able to promote gender equality actively?
I was obviously able to have a direct influence on my group. I have hired 15 men and 7 women over the last 17 years and half of my postdocs were women. It goes without saying that they were all paid the same. I was also very keen to help members of my group balance work with their family responsibilities – we introduced the option of home working early on and we always took parents’ commitments into account when arranging meetings.