2018/03/07 | University |

Advancement of women: "New role models are extremely important"

The numbers speak volumes: 60% of the students studying medicine at Bachelor level are women, while the percentage of women staying on for a professorship is at 14%. This is also the case in many other faculties. The career programme COMET, which is specifically aimed at female postdocs and post-doctoral researchers of all faculties and is now starting its second round, wants to remedy this. "uniaktuell" asked the Vice-Rector for Research Daniel Candinas and the former participant Kathrin Chlench about their experiences with the programme.

By Lilian Fankhauser

After successfully completing the first round, the career programme COMET starts again with twenty new participants in May 2018. The career development programme of the University of Bern is part of the university’s Strategy 2021. It is specifically aimed at female postdocs and post-doctoral researchers of all faculties, and supplements the mentoring programmes at the University of Bern.

"That there are still so few women at professorship level especially in the Faculty of Medicine is, to some extent, a reflection of social conventions", Daniel Candinas believes. The "leaky pipeline", as women’s tendency to leave their academic careers is called, is clearly evident here: 60% of students at Bachelor level are women, and the number of women at professorship level is at 14%. Why?

"Traditional role concepts often predominate"

"Completing a scientific path is a huge challenge, especially in fields such as surgery", Daniel Candinas stresses. Over the course of many years, researchers must strike a balance between academic work and teaching duties on the one side and employment in a clinic on the other. "This is challenging enough as it is. As soon as children come into the picture, traditional role concepts often predominate: women reduce their workload and their academic career fades away." For this reason, the combination of daily clinical practice, science and family is only successful in a strong partnership. And this means that men also need to slow down to be able to support their partner, otherwise this is not possible. At Candinas’ clinic, three female doctors with small children work in leading positions – and they all have partners who work part-time and have somewhat halted their academic career. "These new role models, for men and women, are extremely important", Candinas says.

This is why the university's Executive Board explicitly endorsed the COMET career programme: this targeted and selective support in a stage where women academics are under a lot of pressure is just what they need. Because COMET promotes young women in academia with coaching, mentoring and training so that they can successfully realize the academic career path they aspire to. The first round in 2017 generated great demand: 42 applications were received from young academics, half of whom could be taken on.

Pursuing the chosen path in a targeted manner

PD Dr. Kathrin Chlench-Priber, senior researcher at the Institute of Germanic Languages and Literatures, is one of the 21 participants from a total of six faculties from the first cycle of the programme. Her personal gain: "The COMET programme encouraged me to pursue the path I had chosen."

It was particularly helpful that all the participants were met and supported at the exact stage of their career. Last summer, Kathrin Chlench therefore particularly benefited from a three-day retreat on lake Gerzensee: here she completed her career training, which also included many practical exercises along with detailed information on how the recruitment process works for professorships. This increased her self-confidence, so that she completed her first test lecture with very good prerequisites in an appointment process, to which she was invited at the beginning of 2018.

The mentoring range within the COMET programme was also very valuable: "I chose a female professor from another university but from the same field as a mentor. She asked me to give a talk at a conference organized by her, and then gave me feedback on my presentation and also on the contents of my talk. My current supervisor, Prof. Dr. Michael Stolz, provides me with the best support, but receiving feedback from my mentor was extremely useful."

Chlench-Priber has a five-year old boy, and the balance between family obligations and her academic career hasn’t always been easy to achieve in the last few years. "When our son was one year old, my husband reduced his workload to 30%, today he works at 50%. During this period, our child is looked after at the university’s daycare center or at the kindergarten. Since our son was one year old, I have worked full-time and I have been able to rely on my academic work completely." This model, still unusual in Switzerland, works for both of them. "My husband has a more strenuous job at home than I do!", she says laughing.

The participants of the first COMET programme also exchanged experiences regarding their work-life balance: "However different the fields and the education level of the participants were, the obstacles they faced were the same." They mainly discussed issues on the balance between academic career and family and on precarious work and life conditions regarding temporary employment and uncertain prospects for the future.

A powerful signal also beyond the university

Issues of reconciliation of work and family life are a major topic, and already begin from pregnancy – and Vice-Rector for Research Daniel Candinas is aware of this: in case of pregnancy, female doctors in his team are generally exempted from night shifts and long operations. "However, it often happens that they themselves want to continue working as normal to be able to take care of their patients also in the operating theatre." He is open to reason if the pregnancy goes smoothly, but there is an absolute ban on strenuous duties in the last trimester. This is always a balancing act which requires mutual trust and good arrangements. "One must have the courage to promote young women", Daniel Candinas thinks. Promotion from an early stage, long before a professorship, is crucial. He hopes that the COMET career programme is sending a powerful signal – even beyond the University of Bern.


The University of Bern's career programme is part of the strategy 2021 of the University of Bern. It complements the university's already existing mentoring programmes and is aimed specifically at female postdoctoral researchers of all faculties.

The next round of COMET will start in 2018. The programme is expected to be carried out annually until 2020. Each year, there will be 20 places available which are allotted competitively. Coachings, mentorings and trainings can be held in German and/or English, according to the participants' needs.

Deadline for applications for the second round of COMET is Friday, 16 March 2018.

More information

About the author

Lilian Fankhauser is Co-Head of the Office for Gender Equality at the University of Bern.