Why I am not a woman

by Ralf Stutzki, June 14, 2018

Sorry about that, but sometimes you just have to use a catchy headline to get the reader’s attention. It’s an old journalism trick, I know. But apparently it still works: you are reading this.

According to a European Commission study published in 2016 about gender (un-) equality in the EU-28 countries women academics hold 40.6% of academic positions across the EU-28 countries: 20.9% Grade A positions, 37.1% Grade B positions and 45.1% Grade C positions1. In a large number of EU countries female researchers are in a minority among senior academics (Switzerland 19,3%, France 19.3%, Germany 17.3% and Sweden 23.8%). In 2014 women in EU-28 countries were only 20.1% (CH: 17.5%) of heads of higher education institutions.

The good news is that these numbers are higher than, say, a couple of decades ago. The bad news is: they are still unacceptably low. In our NCCR, for example, the number of female professors currently is 6 (20.7%) out of 29 and the female-/male ratio amongst our fellows is 20 (33%) to 41 (67%). Keep counting – the numbers won’t get any better. Seen from a purely scientific point of view one could argue that these figures correlate with the overall findings of the European Commission study. The study proves pretty much, we may conclude, what we have known all along anyhow: we aren’t much worse than the others. Somehow I have a thinking feeling that there is something significantly wrong with our perception and interpretation of the concept of equality, which we have so conveniently adapted. Being part of this system myself I keep asking myself (so far to no avail): why is it that we get along so astonishingly well with unacceptable yet improvable circumstances? It seems that on our way to create synthetic intelligence and synthetic life we have also enhanced our ability to find comfort in synthetic truths. According to a recent (2017) OECD report2 young women – across its 37 member countries – are better educated than young men, yet get payed less. And Switzerland where the pay gap over the past 5 years at least shrunk by 3% to 17% is still above OECD average (14% in 2015)3. Surprise, surprise. These gaps get bigger with age, with motherhood having “marked negative effects” on career advancement and pay. Now that sounds like a great argument for giving birth to and raising kids in our society, doesn’t it.

So what to do? Abolish motherhood altogether? This would be an excellent tool indeed for closing the pay gap. But I’m afraid we might just run out of scientists after a generation or two. To tell you the truth – I really do not have the answers and there are much better qualified people out there to come up with solutions  (e.g. Basel University’s Centre for Gender Studies, which luckily has accepted our invitation to analyse this NCCR’s overall gender structures in the coming years).

But here is my point: even if we do not know how to eliminate an injustice it is still our responsibility to call it by its name and to take action, each one of us according to his or her own possibilities. There are many ways to ‘leave the comfort zone’, if I may borrow a phrase from the Dutch chemist Ben L. Feringa stated in a different context.
It’s time for us to switch into the attack mode, name the problem(s) and act. Any injustice tolerated by us becomes an injustice inflicted by us.

Ralf Stutzki


[1] Grade A positions are “the single highest grade/post at which research is normally conducted within the institutional or corporate system,” Grade B positions “include all researchers working in positions which are not as senior as the top position (A) but definitely more senior than the newly qualified PhD holders (C),” and Grade C positions describe “the first grade/post into which a newly qualified PhD graduate would normally be recruited within the institutional or corporate system;” European Commission, She Figures (2016): p. 129, 192

[2] https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/social-issues-migration-health/the-pursuit-of-gender-equality_9789264281318-en

[3] https://lenews.ch/2017/10/09/switzerlands-gender-pay-gap-why-educational-equality-doesnt-lead-to-the-same-pay/

Ralf Stutzki, Head Ethics