This article first appeared on Thrive Global.
On the occasion of International Women’s Day, Sunday 8 March 2020, ETH Zurich presented a public photo exhibit featuring the work of Marina Cavazza and Eglė Kačkutė entitled “Portrait of a (Working) Mother”. It included a special ETH Zurich series that builds on their original project presenting women working in Geneva’s international organisations.
As in most workplaces, being a mother working in an academic institution can present a number of challenges. They are compounded for those cumulating several responsibilities, where the lines of work and home life cross, and when cultural and gender issues surface. As women, as foreigners, as academics, or as administrators – in short, as working mothers with different backgrounds and different positions in a university.
The aim of the project “Portrait of a (Working) Mother” is to shine a light on the complexities of the dual role that career women take on when they have children. Switzerland currently ranks 18th in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report, in contrast to regularly featuring close to the top in the same organisation’s studies on competitiveness and innovation. The country scores particularly poorly when it comes to the proportion of women in high office and managerial positions.
The interview series that accompanies the photos in “Portrait of a (Working) Mother” highlights this aspect time and time again. For the subjects, motherhood is often an alternative to a career. Even in organisations perceived as a fair employers providing a good level of flexibility and support, mothers sometimes feel isolated. For a technical university, this is compounded by the fact there are few women in STEM fields in general.
During the recent preview event for the photo exhibit displayed at ETH Zurich, the keynote speaker remarked that sharing experiences and stories is paramount. Like those illustrated in the portraits, these stories highlight how the challenges linked to the dichotomy between motherhood and career can be overcome, creating role models and aspirational references.
In an unexpected twist, the discussion also warned against the stories we shouldn’t be telling. This includes for example the women who claim they just “got lucky” with their bosses or their partners. The group observed that, instead of diminishing themselves or crediting fate or chance with their situation, they should acknowledge their ability to see and capitalise on an opportunity, and make the right decision when faced with a difficult choice.
The hashtag for this year’s International Women’s Day campaign is #EachForEqual, and this photo exhibit fits the bill in that it celebrates women’s achievements as mothers, raises awareness of some of the everyday issues they face, and reminds us that as a society, we have some way to go before achieving gender parity.
About the author
Viktoria Ivarsson holds an MAS in Sports Administration and Technology from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), and an MA in International Relations from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (HEI). She joined ETH Global in April 2018, where she works as an International Relations Officer on projects and events of international scope with a view to increasing the visibility of the university worldwide.