Alison Woodward: “Science quality improves when gender diversity comes into play”

Alison Woodward: “Science quality improves when gender diversity comes into play”

On 13 September 2017, the Equal Opportunity (EO) Programme of the NCCR LIVES, in collaboration with the EO Office and the Interfaculty Platform on Gender (PlaGe) of the University of Lausanne, organised an event on the topic of "Integrating Gender in Science". Prof. Alison Woodward, a renowned specialist of those questions, gave a presentation about what has been done so far to improve women’s access to top academic positions, and what remains to be done. Her talk was followed by a round table discussion with other concerned scholars.

"There has been considerable change in my lifetime, including the fact that increasingly good science is being seen as science that takes considerations of gender seriously on board". When meeting scholars at the University of Lausanne last September, Prof. Alison Woodward, from the RHEA Center for Gender and Diversity and the Institute for European Studies of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, pointed out why there has been so little progress in gendering science, why it is important and what tools are today available to help make it happen.

Alison Woodard mentioned the constitutional and legal developments which have taken place in Europe over the last decades, and the various specialized government institutions accountable for gender equality progress. She listed different women’s interest groups which exerted citizen pressure, and insisted on the importance of the leadership from powerful research organisations.

She stated that "at least in Europe the comparator on scientific achievement remains the US, and the diversity of their labs, in terms of gender as well as ethnicity, is an important benchmark". As far as Switzerland is concerned, she considered that Swiss gender experts are "world leaders in addressing gender diversity issues in science" — at least in theory, she specified, through existing regulations and due monitoring.

Some progress has been made, but problems continue to exist at higher levels of scientific careers. As Alison Woodward showed, the most recent data indicate that women made up 47% of PhD graduates in the European Union, but made up only 33% of researchers and 21% of top-level researchers. It is even lower at the level of heads of institutions with a mere 20%.

"Mixed groups work better"

Alison Woodward put forward that mixed and diverse scientific work forces improve the emotional health of scientific teams, and can contribute to research into wider domains. "Research shows that mixed groups work better", she said, but "the underrepresentation of women is a clear indicator that there are unfair barriers on the pathway to power and performance in science." She added that "not utilising these highly skilled people is an enormous economic waste", as training scientists is costly for society.

During her presentation, Alison Woodward gave many examples and links to resources regarding diverse endeavours (see below). She declared: "On the one hand, I think there is a need to let researchers know that they do not have to reinvent the wheel, as there are almost too many wheels to count when it comes to good advice on how to achieve gender balance. However, on the other hand, given the political sociologists habitual cynicism about much talk, and good promises, but no action, and little monitoring — in reality, change has gone so slowly — so that the classic question ‘Why so Slow?’ still echoes when one looks at the depressing stagnant figures, and occasional backslides showing that it is still often the case that the success rate of men in all categories is better than women."

The debate that followed her talk headed in the same direction. René Levy, professor emeritus of the University of Lausanne, Farinaz Fassa, sociology professor at the University of Lausanne, Damien Michelet, coordinator of the Interfaculty Platform on Gender (PlaGe), and Carole Clair Willi, physician at CHUV, agreed that most of the time problems of gender inequality are not so much rooted inside the academic structures but ahead in society stratification and role models. They supported the idea that every research proposal should ensure a female representation in the research teams, and that research projects addressing human issues should systematically adopt a gender perspective in the research questions, whatever the scientific discipline is.

The baby boom, zenith of perfect housewifes, explained through macro- and microanalyses

The baby boom, zenith of perfect housewifes, explained through macro- and microanalyses

Aline Duvoisin defended her thesis with verve and assurance on 12 September 2017 in relation to the life courses of women of childbearing age between the 1940s and 1965. She paints a detailed picture of a major demographic phenomenon that is still poorly understood, using an approach which puts an emphasis on personal testimonies in order to complement the statistical analysis. Her research reveals an era when everything tended to push women into marriage. Or rather the end of an era...

"An international phenomenon, totally unforeseen, unique and overwhelming in nature", the baby boom has given rise to many interpretations without obtaining a consensus on its real causes. Aline Duvoisin's thesis enables us to move beyond the usual theories, which are often based on an essentially economic perspective, and to better understand this particular period within the Swiss context.

An assistant at the University of Geneva, based at the Interfaculty Centre of Gerontology and Vulnerability Studies (CIGEV) and a member of the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES, Aline Duvoisin shows that this period was characterised by a marked reduction in the age of marriage and the generalisation of the bourgeois model of the “neat and orderly” family.

Socialised in the years between the two world wars, women were imbued in their youth with pro-family discourses extolling the distinction between female and male roles and the incompatibility between employment and parenthood. These norms were conveyed at all levels of society: family, school, churches, youth movements, social and political institutions, legislation and mass culture all contributed to create the ideal of the housewife, respectable and respected "guardian of morals”.

Mixed method

Aline Duvoisin's research has had the impact of a “genuine revelation”, as one of her thesis jury members described it, justifying the advantages of using a "mixed biographical approach" combining quantitative and qualitative data.

Her thesis, largely based on the Vivre/Leben/Vivere (VLV) survey, analyses the life trajectories of 1184 women born between 1910 and 1941 and living in five very distinct Swiss cantons (Geneva, Bern, Basel, Valais and Ticino). For each one of these regions, the researcher was able to benefit from the transcripts of semi-structured interviews conducted by Sylvie Burgnard.

Several types of life trajectories can be discerned, depending on whether the women were married or not, had children or not, and depending on other elements such as career path, the rural or urban context, or the degree of religiosity.

76% of the married women in the sample had at least two children, with the peak of 2.68 children per woman being reached in 1964. Mothers of three or more children were the main contributors to the baby boom - women of faith and those living in the countryside were, unsurprisingly, most prominent among these.

The cohorts observed were better educated than the previous generations, and often went beyond the primary level, but their education nevertheless was still highly gendered, with the proliferation of "household" studies, followed in most cases by a rapid withdrawal from the world of work following marriage.

Internalisation of norms

The testimonies make it possible to understand how these women internalised the current norms. "I have always done the right thing," explains one respondent, recounting her career as a wife and mother of four children. "When I arrived here, I found that the women were behind the times" recalls the other, having grown up abroad before settling in Valais.

"At one time or another during their life courses each of these women experienced an event which reminded them of their place in society," notes Aline Duvoisin.

She observes that the normative pressures felt most strongly by the cohorts being studied were those mainly exerted on their marital path. Infertility was more readily accepted than "disordered" fertility. Thus, not having a child represented a "less serious" failing than not complying with the norms of conjugality.

We can also see that a significant number of mothers of large families had unwanted, or at least unplanned, children due to a lack of effective information about contraception or because of conservative positions.

Pioneers in spite of everything

This thesis shows that in the end a significant proportion of women nevertheless resumed a professional activity when their children were older. "The ideal of a wife at home evolved towards the ideal of a mother at home which had a profound impact on Switzerland and Swiss women during the second half of the 20th century," notes Aline Duvoisin.

For the researcher, the mothers of the baby boomers "were the initiators of dynamics which their daughters then consolidated and normalised, in this case the return of women to the labour market." On a part-time basis, reflecting a gradual change in behaviour patterns rather than a clean break between the period of the baby boom and the subsequent decline in the birth rate since the 1970s.

>> Aline Duvoisin (2017). Les origines du baby-boom en Suisse : une approche biographique des cohortes féminines (1910-1941). Under the direction of Michel Oris. University of Geneva.

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Vulnerability is most visible during turning points and times of transition

Two recently defended theses at the University of Lausanne in the framework of the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES, use data from the Swiss Household Panel to observe the development of critical events, such as becoming an adult, the birth of a child or a spell of unemployment. The research studies of Florence Rossignon and Matteo Antonini use these events to highlight the interaction between individual characteristics and the structural context, which can only really be revealed in a quantitative way by longitudinal tracking over time, thanks to innovative methods. In doing so, these studies present some notable surprises.

"The road to adulthood is long and winding, and it does not come to an end until the late twenties." This phrase of Florence Rossignon on page 54 of her thesis, while rooted in scientific observation, is poetic in many ways. Written by a young PhD candidate, it can also be understood as a metaphor for her own metamorphosis, on reaching the culmination of four years of research. Her thesis, which she defended on 22 August 2017, is the very first to use the “LIVES Cohort” oversampling data from young people born between 1988 and 1997, of whom three quarters are second-generation immigrants. The data comes from the third sample of the Swiss Household Panel, an annual questionnaire conducted since 2013 by FORS, the Swiss Centre of Expertise in the Social Sciences, in collaboration with the NCCR LIVES.

Florence Rossignon was interested in two events marking the transition to adulthood: leaving home and entering the job market. Combining sequence analysis and event history analysis for the first time, two diametrically different methods up till now, her thesis particularly shows that, at every age studied, young people whose parents are separated show a greater probability of leaving the family home than those whose parents are still together.

Well-integrated second generation from former Yugoslavia

With regard to professional integration, Florence Rossignon highlights significant differences coinciding with ethnic origin, even when those concerned were entirely educated in Switzerland. Second generation migrants from Southern Europe make up the highest percentage of those working in skilled manual trades. More surprisingly, young people originally from the Balkans and Turkey are characterised by a greater presence in skilled white-collar jobs following on from an apprenticeship. Compared to young people with two Swiss parents, the second generation from these countries are also less likely to earn their living doing an unskilled job. Young people who have the greatest difficulty in finding work are those whose families originally came from continents other than Europe.

An especially original part of Florence Rossignon's thesis is her study of resident permits. She succeeds in showing that young people who benefitted from temporary or short-term permits when they entered the country, are more likely than the Swiss, all other things being equal, to reach more prestigious socio-professional positions, as self-employed people for instance. According to the researcher, these circumstances could be explained by the families having higher educational and professional aspirations.

Unemployment and its consequences

The self-employed category would appear to be an interesting avenue to pursue for social sciences research. It is also present in Matteo Antonini's thesis, who took his viva on 28 August 2017. He too used data from the Swiss Household Panel, but included older population samples for all ages associated with surveys started in 1999 and 2004. Part of his research addressed the paths followed by people who had experienced one or more periods of unemployment, with the idea of examining their circumstances four years after losing their jobs.

Matteo Antonini compared two groups: people who were unemployed at one point and those who did not experience unemployment. His data shows that in the unemployed group, the self-employed category increases significantly after a period of unemployment, rising from 1.6% to 6.1%. In the control group consisting of people who had not experienced unemployment, the share of self-employed people remains reasonably stable or even decreases, dropping from 8.3% to 7.9% four years later.

This researcher also used sequence analysis, being especially interested in people affected most seriously by unemployment in the medium to long term, either because they were still unemployed at the end of four years, or because they had to resort to downgrading or even because their employment history was characterised by recurring instability. Foreigners and older people are particularly affected by long-term unemployment. Women are especially affected by downgrading, accepting jobs below their level of qualifications which allow them to combine work and family life. Finally, both skilled and unskilled blue-collar workers are the people who struggle the most in finding a secure job.

Apart from these particularly vulnerable categories, Matteo Antonini observed that a significant number of highly qualified people are also affected by long-term unemployment and an insecure working life, perhaps because they are unwilling to accept just any sort of job and furthermore because they have the economic and social resources to cope with the situation for a relatively long time, according to Matteo Antonini. Nevertheless, he sees this phenomenon as a warning which should not be ignored by the Swiss education and social systems.

Women's careers and maternity benefits

The PhD candidate likewise devoted a significant section of his thesis to another turning point, the birth of a child. Working together with Ashley Pullman, a doctoral student at the University of British Columbia, he looked into the effect that new maternity benefits had on professional careers and found mixed results regarding the importance of this reform for women's careers in Switzerland. In some cases, women have actually lost some rights after the 2005 introduction of 16 weeks of compulsory leave on 70% pay, compared to what certain collective agreements used to provide. In any event, the new law has not increased the share of women who work full-time. Matteo Antonini shows that most women are inclined to reduce their working hours, sometimes even before the birth of a child.

The researcher laments that "the reform was not strong enough to overcome the social inertia that maintains a certain structure of individual work sequences." If one looks at this analysis together with the thesis mentioned above, Switzerland does not appear to have improved much: one of Florence Rossignon's observations is that second generation young people who have gained citizenship have not seen their professional path made any easier for all that: individuals who become Swiss still have fewer chances of occupying a higher position than those who are born Swiss. They may have higher expectations and would therefore enter into competition with nationals who have a more substantial social capital, the researcher suggests. In both cases, the research of the LIVES PhD graduates reveals the tension that exists between the social structure and individual strategies.

>> Florence Rossignon (2017). Transition to adulthood for vulnerable populations in Switzerland: When past matters. Under the supervision of Jacques-Antoine Gauthier and Jean-Marie Le Goff. University of Lausanne.

>> Matteo Antonini (2017). The impact of critical events on work trajectories. Under the supervision of Felix Bühlmann. University of Lausanne.

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Psychology studies aim to capture real-life snapshots of our changing mentalities

Nowadays, at the start of the 21st century, the family is an inescapable crucible of social change. It was no surprise then to find this subject at the heart of several presentations at the 15th Conference of the Swiss Psychological Society, held on 4–5 September 2017 at the University of Lausanne. During the event, the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES made a large number of submissions focusing on the quality of relationships, wellbeing and modern family norms.

Views and attitudes relating to the family have changed at breakneck speed in recent years, and this subject is naturally of interest to research in all kinds of fields within the social sciences. This is all the more true for psychology, which has always prioritised the study of family relationships. Thus as ever, the structure of the family was a prominent subject among the many debated this year at the Conference of the Swiss Psychological Society. What was striking, however, was how often the subject of change arose.

On the first day, the public conference held by Professor Susan Golombok, Director of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge, referred to the many fears triggered by both the transformations of family structures and new methods of conceiving children. Drawing on a large number of studies conducted with atypical families or families where assisted reproduction played a role, she showed that the psychological wellbeing of children is not linked to parental type or the way the children were conceived, but to the quality of their family relationships.

In all scenarios, whether they involve same-sex parents, single-parent families or individuals with children conceived via assisted reproduction, the scientific findings of Susan Golombok contradicted the fears voiced by proponents of the traditional family unit. Her conference, sponsored by NCCR LIVES and the University of Lausanne's Science-Society Interface, discussed many examples included in her best-selling book published in 2015: Modern Families: Parents and Children in New Family Forms.

Members of NCCR LIVES presented 23 papers during the conference, which was attended by more than 250 researchers. Twelve of these papers were based on data gathered as part of specific projects conducted by the Centre (IP201, IP207, IP212, IP213). In addition to issues related to the world of work and ageing, the subject of the family was particularly well covered, with several female researchers seeking to better understand various aspects of the way family structures are evolving.

Progress on gender equality – but what about in Switzerland?

Professor Clémentine Rossier, a family demographer at the University of Geneva and leader of NCCR LIVES IP208, presented research conducted with Juliette Fioretta on the wellbeing of couples with children who adopt progressive attitudes and practices towards questions of gender.

Their study compared five countries – Germany, Belgium, France, Sweden and Switzerland – demonstrating that couples with the most egalitarian opinions have much better indicators of wellbeing, irrespective of country. One factor that explains this result is that couples who aspire to more progressive gender-based ideals also occupy a more privileged position in society. When gender equality was examined in practice – here observing couples where both partners work on a full-time basis – quite the same results emerged: couples where both partners were in full-time work generally had better wellbeing indicators.

Of the five countries studied, Switzerland was the only country where working couples with both partners in full-time work experienced greater financial and health-related difficulties than couples where the female partner did not work or worked on a part-time basis. Unlike in the other countries, women working full-time in Switzerland seem to be obliged to do so for financial reasons – to the detriment of their wellbeing – in a context which does very little to promote a balance between work and family life. Women from more privileged backgrounds, who gain an advantage from full-time work in other countries, opt heavily for part-time work in Switzerland because of a lack of appropriate childcare facilities.

This observation is confirmed by the fact that Switzerland also has the largest proportion of fathers who have reduced their working hours in order to look after their children (9%). The researchers concluded from these findings that "what is at the root of the problem in Switzerland, therefore, is the ability to juggle a career and family life, and not gender equality in terms of representation or other practices."

Individual views and social norms

This same finding – of changing mentalities not yet entirely reflected in real life – was also found in the highly promising and original study presented by Léïla Eisner, an NCCR LIVES doctoral student at the University of Lausanne under the direction of Professor Dario Spini. Following a survey of 1,105 people from all social backgrounds in various areas of the canton of Vaud, Eisner, a young social psychology researcher, studied the respondents' views on working mothers and same-sex parents, as well as their perceptions of what other people think of these same questions.

In relation to working mothers, her results revealed somewhat neutral views, with the least favourable attitudes expressed by the oldest and least qualified respondents. An analysis of the differences between personal views and the perceived norm showed very small disparities: in other words, few people believe their stance to be dramatically different from the feelings of the rest of society. This would tend to indicate that a woman's right to a career is now less and less disputed and is becoming more widely accepted as normal practice.

Progressive views on same-sex parents

However, in relation to views and perceived norms on the subject of same-sex parents, Léïla Eisner's analyses illustrate large gulfs between personal opinions and the picture the respondents had of the views of other people. Only 40% of those questioned said they were personally opposed to the idea of families with same-sex parents, but nearly double this figure thought most people were against the idea. A further significant point is that those respondents most hostile to the notion of gay or lesbian parents believed that society as a whole shared their view, whereas the opinions of individuals are in reality much more progressive, demonstrating that the opposite is true.

Yet those people who were least opposed to the right of same-sex couples to raise children believed they accounted for a small minority of public opinion on the matter whereas in reality, many more people actually agree with them than they realise. Closer examination of this avant-garde group of people, who feel at odds with the direction of society despite being quite representative of it, demonstrates that women, young people, those with left-leaning political views and the least religious are very strongly represented. But men, older respondents, and individuals with political views on the right or with strong religious beliefs are less likely to differentiate between their own opinion and that of other people, believing that it is a majority view when it actually seems to be a perspective in decline.

Emotional bonds first and foremost

Transformations affecting the family were also the focus of other presentations. Examples included the work of Professor Daniela Jopp and her team on relationships between grown up children and their very elderly parents, a phenomenon that longer life expectancies allow us to observe, and the presentation of Jeanette Brodbeck, a psychologist at the University of Bern and member of NCCR LIVES IP212. Brodbeck's team spent six years studying how individuals come to terms with the loss of a partner following a bereavement or divorce during the second half of their lives. The paper presented to the Conference showed that former partners who maintain friendly relations display far fewer symptoms of depression and are more satisfied with life, irrespective of their new relationship situation, socio-economic status and their personality.

This optimistic finding in the face of rising divorce rates echoes another result presented to the Conference by Shagini Udayar, a very young researcher and member of IP207, a project devoted to career paths. Her research, conducted under the direction of Professor Jérôme Rossier, demonstrates that people who say they feel supported by those around them gradually become more extrovert, agreable and conscientious, findings which were illustrated by the measurements taken in year four of the study. Society and family structures may have evolved, but emotional bonds remain our single most important resource.

>> 15th Conference of the Swiss Psychological Society