Achieving diversity in leadership must start with students

Building a diverse staff and student body requires a nuanced approach, says Sarah Springman, who identifies three areas where institutions can push for more inclusion, especially around gender

August 2, 2019
Student diversity
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Diversity matters to university leaders just as much as it does to business and society. As the world becomes more global and more interconnected, diversity of thought, experience and opinion, based on differences in race, sociocultural background and gender, becomes more and more important. Moreover, the numbers do not lie: figures show that diversity makes economic sense. A 2015 McKinsey study found that companies with strong ethnic and gender diversity outperform their competitors by significant margins.

In academia, we know that women should be an essential part of a university’s leadership team, even though they are not always the top person in the organisation. We also recognise that achieving diversity among our professoriate is important, although there are challenges to achieving this in practice – some of which I discuss below. Diversity is also achieved at the level of the student body. At ETH Zurich, 35 per cent of students come from abroad, even though the bachelor’s degree begins in German, and the year-on-year trend in admissions shows an increasing number of applications from women, reaching 36 per cent last year. The percentage of women working and studying at ETH Zurich has increased significantly since 1985, when the first woman acquired a full professorship (see timeline below).

Nevertheless, recognising diversity as a desirable goal is one thing; walking the talk is another. Here, there is no silver bullet. Different companies and organisations have tried and tested numerous methods to reach this objective.

One long-debated solution is that of quotas. Based on my experiences in the sporting world, sometimes there is no other choice than to go down this route, especially if the objective is to achieve tangible results quickly. Notably, the International Triathlon Union (ITU), formed in 1989, created a Women’s Commission, which I co-chaired, with the explicit goal of achieving equal opportunities, recognition and rewards for women in triathlon. Working with our male counterparts, we were able to secure equal representation of men and women on the ITU executive board, equal numbers of competition slots and prize money for male and female athletes in our sport, and equal press coverage. To this day, the ITU remains the only federation of the summer Olympic sports with a female president.

In the academic context, we must nuance this approach, and the application of quotas should be considered case by case. At ETH Zurich, for instance, it simply would not work. Our bottom-up approach and mindset means that the system itself is not set up in a way that would be conducive to implementing quotas in the first place. How to work within these constraints to make progress is the challenge. As we are a technical university, this is compounded by the lack of gender diversity in the STEM fields in general.

I have identified three areas where I believe academic institutions can focus their efforts to achieve greater diversity:

Review structures and update policies

All of our academic institutions are different. We operate in contexts with a distinct history and a set of norms prescribed by our location, politics and culture. Some values, however, are universal, and when it comes to diversity, I believe we have a duty to create our own standards and goals for achieving a broader representation in all areas.

For example, we can target unconscious bias by educating and training at many levels, not just top management. Providing comprehensive dual-career assistance and advice is another effective means of facilitating integration, especially in an international academic context. With more than half the workforce at ETH Zurich recruited from abroad, addressing this is an imperative, not just a nice-to-have. What it boils down to is good governance. Many of these areas are still works in progress, but formulating some ambitious aims is something every higher education institution should aspire to.

Showcase role models

We need to elevate the men and women around us who succeed in championing the cause of diversity. Helping them to tell their stories and giving them a voice can inspire us in our day-to-day work, as well as illustrating to young future leaders what the possibilities are. In my role, I actively advocate for women taking a leading role in scientific research and teaching. ETH Zurich also organises a Global Lecture Series featuring distinguished speakers with various career paths, giving students an opportunity to hear and engage directly with leaders in their field. In addition, special events around International Women’s Day highlight the profiles of women in STEM, such as the goMath exhibition and symposium organised by the mathematics department.

Participate on platforms for dialogue

We are not alone in considering questions around diversity issues. The European Women Rectors Association (Ewora) brings together fantastic female leaders and peers to exchange experiences and share best practice. It provides an uplifting, supportive environment, where a broad spectrum of issues is considered and solutions proposed. In a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – a so-called VUCA world – reflecting with those who share our values and beliefs is especially important. Ewora also engages male leaders in this dialogue. I greatly enjoy working with my male colleagues on the ETH Zurich executive board, too, as we engage mutually in taking action to champion gender equality, diversity and inclusion.

Some of the solutions described above enable us to tackle structural issues that require immediate review and can yield results right away. However, I also believe that we must be forward-looking, and that setting up the appropriate contexts now will produce future returns. In fact, I would go as far as to say that diversity in leadership starts at the student level: that is where the pipeline for the leaders of tomorrow begins. We have a responsibility towards them to take stock, assess and monitor our progress on these issues today, so that they may continue that work and take it to the next level. Implementing the strategies suggested above would go a long way in setting diversity as a standard in academia.


Key milestones in the history of women at ETH Zurich

1855 ETH Zurich opens and explicitly welcomes women to study.

1871 The university’s first female student, Nadezda Smeckaja from Russia, begins a degree in mechanical engineering.

1976 The association of students at ETH Zurich elects its first female president, Barbara Haering. She later becomes a member of the Federal Assembly of Switzerland.

1985 Swiss architect Flora Ruchat-Roncati becomes the first woman to acquire a full professorship.

2007 Heidi Wunderli-Allenspach, a professor of biopharmacology, becomes the university’s first female rector.


Sarah Springman is rector at ETH Zurich. The university will host the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit from 10 to 12 September 2019, which will include the launch of the THE World University Rankings 2020. Register to attend here.  

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