“Power imbalances are as tough as chewing gum”

“The traditional role model is strongly anchored in people’s minds.” Patricia Felber (in stripes) and Christine Weidmann talk about challenges to equality. Photographs: Regula Bearth © ZHdK

After 17 years as ZHdK Equal Opportunities Representative, Christine Weidmann is retiring. Here she discusses traditional role models and active recruitment policies with her successor Patricia Felber.


Andrea Zeller: Christine Weidmann, you were appointed equal opportunities officer at our university in 2001. What were the pressing issues at the time?
Christine Weidmann: The Equal Opportunities Office was created as part of the Federal Programme for Equal Opportunities at Universities of Applied Sciences. The original focus was on equality between men and women. Together with equal opportunities officers at PHZH, ZHAW and HWZ, we established several committees to devise regulations on anti-discrimination and measures for promoting diversity and talent advancement. I also conducted many consultations.

How did you implement the regulations?
Christine Weidmann: Among others, we established mentoring programmes dedicated to promoting junior faculty and supporting women in executive positions. I was also able to sit on selection committees and to raise awareness of equal opportunities.

Nevertheless, today only one female is head of department at ZHdK.
Christine Weidmann: Unfortunately, yes. But we have now gained experience of how to attract successful women. We need to focus on active staff recruitment. Nowadays, recruitment is no longer about waiting for good applications from women, but about activating networks, employment agencies and personal contacts.

What are you particularly proud of?
Christine Weidmann: I quickly realized that we had to offer childcare facilities at ZHdK. In response, I organized a few places at a local day care centre. When planning for the Toni Campus began, I realized at an orientation event that no day care centre was envisaged due to lack of space. I took the rudimentary plans home and looked at them with my husband, an architect. At the next orientation meeting I approached the Toni architects, asked them about the missing day care centre and suggested having one up on the rooftop terrace. This marked the beginning of the Kita Dachspatzen. I’m proud that I’ve supported this project and that the University helps staff and students to reconcile work, study and family life. Besides, the children can experience a lot in an exciting art environment.*

How has the social climate changed in the last 17 years?
Patricia Felber: A lot has happened in the area of equality. Today there is no longer any discussion as to whether or not women should hold executive positions. Similarly, men reducing their workload, to spend more time with their family, is no longer the exception. But I still see discrimination. It is simply more subtle. It is often related to the fact that stereotypes are deeply rooted and that existing networks are difficult to break up. Regulations and quotas only help to a limited extent.

Christine Weidmann: Change must happen in people’s mind and stomachs. On the whole, society has become more sensitive to gender issues and their importance. Take, for instance, the regulations for transgender people at ZHdK; in the past this issue would have been discussed at best under the rubric of equal opportunities; today it has its own significance.

Is equality in Switzerland different from abroad?
Patricia Felber: The model of the man as the sole breadwinner is certainly more firmly anchored in our country than in other countries. On the one hand, there are historical reasons for this: in other countries, women were important members of the workforce during and after the Second World War. This was not the case in Switzerland, which was largely spared from the war. On the other, salaries here are very high, meaning families can live on one income. The traditional role model continues to be propagated in advertising and the media and seems to be firmly rooted in people’s minds. One example is the choice of name: the majority of women take their partner’s name when they get married, although the law no longer requires them to.

Christine Weidmann: In counselling young mothers, I have always stressed that they don’t need to interrupt their employment or studies for long, if at all, because of their maternity. It’s very difficult to re-enter employment after a long break. Besides, women may find themselves in precarious situations when their relationship breaks down.

What can we learn from abroad in this respect?
Patricia Felber: At Trinity College Dublin, the Gender & Diversity Unit has twenty staff, of which only one member is responsible for equality between men and women. Other areas such as gender, disability or language are given high priority. At Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main, the issue of care is covered more broadly — for instance, how can employees who need to look after a sick family member be supported? Ultimately, however, the issues discussed in an institution always reflect the social challenges facing a particular country, meaning they can’t be adopted one-to-one elsewhere.

Which form of inequality would you eradicate if you could?
Christine Weidmann: The power inequalities between women’s and men’s worlds. They’re as tough as chewing gum on the floor, which simply can’t be scraped off entirely.

Patricia Felber: The fact that women are still judged by their hairstyle, their tone of voice or taste in shoes and only then based on their professional qualifications and achievements. I would also like women to have greater selfconfidence and to assert their right to executive positions and equal pay.

* Editor’s note: This interview was conducted in May 2018. ZHdK is currently revising its childcare support regulations. Subsidised care should be accessible to a wider circle of parents, regardless of the location of the day care centre. Due to lower demand than expected, Kita Dachspatzen will be moving from the Toni-Areal to the local neighbourhood in 2019.

Christine Weidmann joined ZHdK in 2001 as an equal opportunities representative and headed the Equal Opportunities and Diversity Office for 17 years. She retired in the spring of 2018.
Patricia Felber
(patricia.felber@zhdk.ch) holds a PhD in geography and has been head of the Equal Opportunities and Diversity Office at ZHdK since spring 2018. Beforehand, she worked as an equal opportunities coordinator at the veterinary faculty of the University of Bern where she developed equal opportunities plans for various faculties.
Andrea Zeller had been very happy about the good child care facilities on the Toni rooftop terrace. She was a project manager at ZHdK University Communications.
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