The Executive Board of the University commissioned sociologist Katja Rost and economist Margit Osterloh to conduct a study on the topic of the leaky pipeline. What was the reason for this and what exactly was the mandate?
Gabriele Siegert: As Deputy President, one of my areas of responsibility at UZH is equal opportunities. The leaky pipeline phenomenon has been a matter of concern to the university for a long time, and over the course of the years it has changed only marginally. We wanted to know why this is the case and what we could do better, so we commissioned the study.
Elisabeth Stark: As Vice President Research, I am responsible for academic career development, so the leaky pipeline is also of interest to me. The question is: why are we losing highly qualified and academically inclined young women, particularly during and after their PhDs? Which support measures are effective and which are not? These questions need to be examined empirically.
One important and helpful finding is that the leaky pipeline phenomenon varies greatly depending on the discipline.
Were you already aware of the study findings ahead of the SonntagsZeitung article which triggered much public debate?
Siegert: The Executive Board of the University first saw the study report (PDF, 1 MB) in September 2022; it was also presented to the Extended Executive Board of the University and the Management Conference. The study we commissioned bears little relation to the assertions flying around in the media. The study briefly expounds some theories about possible explanatory factors at institutional and individual levels. As is standard for scientific studies, there are explanations of the empirical observations and the data. Then there is a cautiously worded evaluation chapter that, among other things, points to the need for further empirical research.
Stark: We encouraged Katja Rost and Margit Osterloh to continue this research, but we didn’t explicitly give them another specific mandate to do so. The study findings were a surprise to all of us. A certain picture emerged from the collected data, and as is standard practice in science and research, individual explanatory hypotheses for this picture then had to be tested (and still need to be tested).
As part of the University Research Priority Program “Human Reproduction Reloaded”, the two researchers then undertook a more in-depth follow-up study called “How to explain the leaky pipeline”. The public debate has mainly revolved around this second study.
The results of the follow-up study had not yet been published when the report appeared in the SonntagsZeitung, as it has not yet been peer-reviewed. This means the Executive Board of the University did not know the details. In light of the public debate, we asked the authors to make this second study available on Katja Rost’s website.
Siegert: For reasons of transparency. The debate is already happening – it was our opinion that interested members of the public should be able to read for themselves what the study actually says. Individual media reports cannot be the only sources of information. In addition, by making both studies available, readers can differentiate between what was included in the report to the Executive Board and what emerged from further studies.
Many people have criticized the study design. What’s your position on this?
Siegert: In scientific discourse, it is common to critically discuss and question the methodology of studies in order to better understand and contextualize the findings. What I don’t agree with is people without expertise in the subject or from a completely different field suddenly claiming to know better about methodology.
Stark: There has been criticism, for example, that in the questionnaire respondents were asked to comment on gender-role stereotypes. But if you want to find out how deeply certain traditional gender images are still anchored in society, you have to do just that. It’s a common and best-practice approach in the social sciences.
There are no disadvantages for men if they are in the minority in a subject area. In contrast, women who want to pursue careers in a traditionally male field do not benefit from their minority status.
For the Executive Board of the University, which are the most important findings from the commissioned study?
Siegert: It’s certainly helpful and important to know that the leaky pipeline phenomenon varies greatly depending on the subject area. Surprisingly, it is much less pronounced in traditionally male-dominated subjects than in those areas with a high proportion of women.
Stark: It’s also interesting to discover that being the minority gender in a subject area has quite a different effect for men and women. There are no disadvantages for men if they are in the minority in a certain subject area. Quite the contrary in fact: these men are more likely to be favored compared to their female competitors. In contrast, women who want to pursue careers in a traditionally male field do not benefit from their minority status. The bottom line is: whether a woman studies a subject traditionally chosen mainly by female students, or goes into a more male-dominated subject area, she still faces disadvantages either way.
Is it necessary to rethink the measures UZH has put in place to promote gender equality?
Siegert: All university measures, whatever the targeted action, need to be reviewed from time to time to determine their effectiveness and adjusted if necessary. We do that on an ongoing basis. Studies such as this leaky pipeline one help us do this.
As the mandate-issuer, how will the Executive Board of the University now deal with the study results?
Stark: As I said, the report’s findings were presented to the Extended Executive Board and the Management Conference, and measures will be discussed. We have already initiated a specific measure at the Graduate Campus based on the study’s findings: we are shifting the focus of support efforts from the doctoral level to the postdoc stage, where advisory and coaching services in particular are being expanded.
Siegert: The study clearly shows that we need take more subject-specific measures. Subject areas with less pronounced leaky pipelines – which include many science subjects – need to work to attract more female students to their programs of study. For disciplines with a pronounced leaky pipeline, on the other hand, the primary challenge is to encourage more women to stay in academia at postdoc level and beyond.