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Can external evaluations effectively promotegender diversity and equity?



 External evaluation committees should provide a neutral and unbiased assessment of policies and processes in the institutions that they review. Both accountability in subsequent evaluation cycles and serious commitment from institutional leadership are needed for effective implementation of committee recommendations. 


In the last evaluation of the ETH Domain in 2019, the expert committee highlighted diversity issues in three of its twenty-two recommendations. In “Recommendation 7: Attracting Women to STEM Disciplines”, the expert committee called on the “institutions of the ETH Domain, and especially ETHZ and EPFL, [to create] a culture and an environment that attracts women” in order to “make the difference in recruiting, retaining and promoting women in technology fields”.[1] How much progress has the ETH Domain made toward this goal? 

The short answer is that we don’t know. The statistics on gender diversity reported by the ETH Domain in its annual reports[2] are neither sufficiently transparent nor detailed to assess improvements, especially in retention and promotion. For example, the aggregation of numbers of full and associate professors in the annual reports makes it impossible to compare the rates of promotion from associate to full professor for men and women. The reported representation of women among new appointments in 2021 (46.2%) does not distinguish between appointments at different ranks or between tenure-track and non-tenure track appointments for assistant professors. The most recent data released by the ETH Board in December shows a decrease in the representation of women among new appointments to 41.7% for 2022.[3] Furthermore, there is no transparency regarding extensions for professors past retirement age.[4] 


Statistics on representation, even if they were complete, would still tell only part of the story. What is the experience of women as professors at ETH Zurich and EPFL? In the 2020 “Report of the Commission on the Status of Women Faculty at EPFL”,[5] all the women interviewed commented on “the feeling of isolation that stems from being a minority”. Most interviewees criticized the grievance procedures as“a source of undue stress and, possibly, gender bias, as the fraction of women targeted is much higher than that of women professors at EPFL.” That is, in comparison to male faculty, female faculty were disproportionality subject to investigations. Although a similar commission was appointed at ETHZurich in November 2021, its report is still pending.[6] 


The ETH Women Professors Forum (WPF) [7] has highlighted the problems with grievance procedures in numerous discussions with the leadership of ETH Zurich, EPFL, and the ETH Board. [8] In particular, theWPF has emphasized the need to ensure that procedures are being correctly conducted while they are in process and not just after they are concluded. An independent report commissioned by the ETHBoard concluded that grievance procedures at ETH Zurich were not always correctly conducted(«Hingegen hat sich die ETH Zürich in den letzten Jahren bei der Durchführung vonVorprüfungsverfahren nicht immer an ihre Verfahrensordnung gehalten.»).[9] 


Problems with the working environment affect female students and doctoral students as well as faculty. This is apparent from an open letter released by the group Women in Natural Sciences at ETH(WiNS) [10] as well as by concerns expressed at a meeting between female doctoral students and members of the ETH Zurich Executive Board.[11] 


For the upcoming intermediate evaluation in March 2023, the ETH Domain must respond to the recommendations from 2019. Whether the 2023 expert committee can accurately assess the progress since 2019 will depend on how transparent the ETH Domain is willing to be with the expert committee and whether the committee is willing to probe beneath the surface of reported statistics. Increased transparency with independent monitoring would enable the expert committee to do its job. In the end, however, expert committees can only make recommendations. It is up to the leadership in theETH Domain to bring about meaningful change within the institutions. 


Janet Hering is Director Emerita of the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science & Technology (Eawag),Professor Emerita of Environmental Biogeochemistry at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zürich(ETHZ) and Professor Emerita of Environmental Chemistry at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology,Lausanne (EPFL). She is a former Chairwoman of the ETH Women Professors Forum. 


This article expresses the personal opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the position of any institution or group with which she is affiliated. 


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