Updated: May 29

One year after giving birth to my child, I went to my regular gynaecological check up. My doctor, a 70 year old who (to my good luck) refuses to retire, was in a good mood and did some small talk. She asked me how things were going. I said that it was a particularly stressful time, applying for new jobs, etc. She told me "with a baby and your career, it is really hard, especially in Switzerland". I said "yes, I am particularly tired of being questioned for working 100% by so many people!" "Aha, of course… you are a Rabenmutter!", she smiled ironically. Given my surprise face, she immediately continued: "it is a disrespectful way of saying you are a bad mother for not being with your children all day". Then she continued telling me that when she studied medicine, there were actually several female students, but later they ended up working as assistants in their husbands’ praxis, to be able to work part time and take care of the kids. After graduating, my doctor moved and worked many years in the US. "There the problem was different. Since medical school is so expensive there, the fathers directly refused to pay for a medical career for their daughters, since they were anyway going to give up their professions once they got married". My horror face needed no words of clarification.

A couple of Dohlen (from the Raben family) flying around the Jungfraujoch. Photo credits: Julia Venturini.

Friends had warned me about the difference of treatment between my partner and me once the baby came, but I did not expect it to be so widespread. A friend told me "you will see, for example, how he will be praised when he brings the kid to the playground (what a great daddy!), and no one will ever praise you". But I did not expect the generalised "How come you work 100%?!" from so many people, like extended family of my partner, former colleagues, doctors (except my gynaecologist), hairdressers… Even when my kid was not a baby anymore.

You might be wondering "why do you get so pissed about that question?". To me, behind that "innocent" question, several social beliefs and prejudices are hidden. Let’s go by parts into those hidden "premises".

Premise #1. It assumes that if a child grows up in a family where both parents work full time, not all the needs of the kid will be satisfied. In such a family, clearly someone beyond the parents must help with the care duties. This is apparently bad for children.

Premise #2. Since a reduction from working full time is needed to raise a kid properly (because premise #1 is true), then by asking the question only to the mother, the assumption is that it is the mother who has to spend more time with the kid. It’s this deep belief that kids need the mother more, or that kids "belong" to the mother.

And there is an even more subtle premise assumed when questioning the mother for not working part time. It is assumed that a mother can always reduce her workload. And which are the professions that allow for a reduction in the working percentage? You will tell me: in Switzerland, many! teacher, medical assistant, secretary, sales person, etc. They all have something in common: they are typically not the professions that enjoy the highest social status, which is equal to say: they are not the best paid jobs. So the innocent question is also implying premise #3: that is the woman who should quit her aspiration to a position of high social status (and power).

I will analyse one by one these three premises, giving my perspective of why they are not correct.

Premise #1.

It’s true, all kids need their parents. Nobody is questioning that. But do kids need to be with their parents (or one of them) all the time? Is there some data backing that up?

I am not a social scientist, but I highly doubt that kids raised in France (a country where childcare from the baby stage is much more generalised than in Switzerland) love less their parents than in Switzerland. Or that they have on average more problems as adults than kids raised in Switzerland. Premise #1 tends to hide the belief that by using child care facilities, parents are "giving away their kids all day to strangers'' (I have heard this). As if Kita workers were some sort of monster. The truth is, they know much more about kids and child development than most of us, they studied and have experience with children. They care about them and teach them to do things I would be completely unable to do myself if I kept my kid home with me. The kids know them well because they see them every day, and the Kita is also the place where the kids make their first friends, learn to play with them and to share. They are not with strangers, they are with their friends and caregivers. And a kid does not go "all day" to the day-care. You are still the parent! You are still responsible for their well being. You are still there when they need you, and that is what matters to them.

Once, before getting pregnant, I was having doubts if I was going to manage with a baby with my career. A secretary where I was working at that time told me something that I always remember: "what kids need from their parents is quality time. If you are all day around them but you are busy cleaning or doing something else, that doesn’t count for them. If you can delegate or share that, find time to play, to read a story, to take them for a trip… that is what matters." I think it’s true.

And let’s be honest. Of course we all parents love our children. Nothing makes us happier than that tight hug they give us when you pick them up at school. Nothing amazes you more than seeing them grow with all their out-of-the-box thoughts and reasonings. But kids are also really hard. They are constantly demanding, they get annoyed, they get injured. They sleep bad at night. They cry. A lot. They defy your limits. They overpass your patience… The truth is, it is really exhausting to be with them all day, especially when they are small. I noticed during the pandemic that I am a much more loving mother when I have my time to go to work and see my kid afterwards, compared to when I was with her all day.

Actually, the end of my gynaecological visit (which started this post) was my doctor saying "I never stopped working and I raised three children. I think if I had stayed home all day my children would hate me!". I laughed loud: "I think the same, my daughter would hate me too!".

In the end, why would it be better for a kid to be all day with a parent? Who demonstrated that?

Premise #2.

I did not realise until getting the famous question of "how come you work 100%?!" that most mothers in Switzerland work part time (when they are not directly housewives).

In the case of the family member who asked me, I felt very tempted to reply "why don’t you ask the same question to the father?". But I did not want to start a family argument at that time.

I think it is crucial to realise that childcare does not have a gender. It’s true, it’s the woman who gets pregnant and the one who breastfeeds. That is very demanding, but it lasts about one, or one and half years, and it is by far not the only duty related to childcare! Kids also need someone changing diapers, bathing them, comforting them when they cry, setting limits, putting them to bed, preparing food when they start eating solids, getting them new clothes, etc. None of these tasks are a "mommy" job, nothing prevents a father from doing them (that is, by the way, being a father!). Any role we assign to those tasks is cultural. It is essential to acknowledge that if we want things to change.

It is also crucial to admit how deeply influenced we are from our own role models. We might unconsciously believe that those tasks "belong" to the mother just because our mother did that. A personal anecdote related to this: during the last visit of my mother, when my partner stood up with our kid in arms from the table in the restaurant we were, to tell me "I go to change her diapers", my mother looked at me with an amazed face and claimed "he is a mother!". I said with a very pissed off look "no mom, he is a father".

We do not have to forget that "stereotypes" are not "nature", and we do not have to lose scope of how psychology and its role models tricks us all the time, making us repeat the same schemes with which we were nourished, unless we do the conscious exercise of questioning those roles and discussing them with our partner all the time.

I must admit that the constant famous question made me question myself if I was doing things right by not asking for an extended period of unpaid maternity leave, or by reducing my workload. And this considering that I did not grow up in a country where mothers are at home and in a society that bombards you with the tacit motto "kids need their mothers at home". No, I grew up in a house where my mother was not working 100%, but 150% because she was a single mom of two. Also, in my home country, most women work because salaries are very low and everyone needs to work, and working part time is rarely an option.

If the single famous question affected me (because I felt judged), how can it not affect a person that grew up here? It looks nearly impossible to me to go against that if you were bred like that. And then I remember how tired I am of seeing Swiss young women dropping out of academia after obtaining their PhDs, because they want to start a family and see no way to cope with family and work. Coping is possible with the right partner! But one has to let all social judgments slipper like rain droplets against the window, and that is not easy. And one has to always question the stereotypes. That’s also not easy, and we all have them.

I have seen even among progressive people I know, how the woman ends up not working or working very little when the couple opts for kids. Many factors enter into this uneven decision: maternity leave is too short for a reasonable time of breastfeeding. The father already earns more. Kitas are terribly expensive. In school, kids must go back home for lunch. You put this together with the brain washing motto of "kids need their mothers at home" and you end up with the current Swiss society.

The problem is, things will not change if women continue giving up their professions to comply with these social mandates. Maternity leave will not be extended if women continue stopping to work after giving birth. Childcare and school system will not change if change is not demanded by the majority.

Premise #3.

A permanent position in academia is one of those jobs that are scarce and highly coveted, and hence, the competition is fierce. Hence, if you work part time when you are competing for one of those positions, the chances that you make it, get reduced, because another hundred people continued working full time and will have more credentials than you. I can imagine a similar situation for becoming manager or director in a prestigious company. And even once you get the so desired "top" position, I also see it very hard to reduce the workload, because of all the compromises, and all the people that depend on your decisions on a daily basis.

Bottom line: when climbing the ladder in a high status profession, with a high degree of decision making, it is really difficult not to work full time. So the real question is: why should it be the women who gives up the aspiration to these positions?

At the end, history and social studies have demonstrated that the lack of women in those positions has harmed dramatically the life of women world-wide, because for example, when there are no women in the decision making, medical research does not focus on diseases affecting only women, cars are not designed for women (and hence women die more often in car accidents), musical instruments are not made for women sizes (and hence chronic diseases like tendinitis are more common in women), and a long list of astonishing etcetera that you can dig in by reading the game changer book Invisible Women from Caroline Criado Perez.

In addition, 51% of university students in Switzerland nowadays are women. Numbers do not change much when looking at the percentage of doctoral students. Will we keep locking up all that talent and preparation inside the four walls of domestic life? This is even silly when thinking only from the country-level economical perspective.

But beyond the economy, and more important to me, it’s us: women that have strived so hard to be where we are and that also want to raise happy and healthy children. Who dares to tell us that our efforts were in vain? Who dares to tell us that we can’t?

Dr. Julia Venturini



Updated: May 22

Xianjun Fang, M.Sc., is a doctoral student in the Earth Surface Dynamics group at ETH Zurich. She is part of the project Biodiversity, Earth, Climate Coupling in Yunnan (BECCY), a collaboration among ETH Zurich and four Chinese institutes, including Fang’s alma mater, Peking University. According to Fang, her work in the BECCY project seeks to identify “geomorphic and ecologic controls on hotspots of biodiversity” in the Hengduan Mountains of southwest China’s Yunnan province. She studies how landscapes change over geologic time scales (hundreds of thousands to millions of years).

Fang during field work in Yunnan.

Integrating geology and biology means Fang has come full circle. She wanted to study biology originally, but it was not available when she applied to camps universities hosted for senior high school students. She chose geology due to its similarity to biology, taking the chance to “study creatures in ancient times.” Fortunately, she enjoyed “climbing mountains and observing rivers” in geology field camps. Fang earned high enough scores to attend Peking University, where she studied earth science and met Professor Jianqing Ji. Dr. Ji was her undergraduate thesis advisor as well as her Master’s supervisor, and encouraged her to pursue a PhD in Switzerland.

Fang’s doctoral research focuses on the Salween and Mekong Rivers. Here, the Salween River near Bingzhongluo, Yunnan, China. Photo by Michael Woodhead (Wikimedia Commons).

Fang benefited from Dr. Ji’s collaborative research environment. In order to construct a database and mine data related to the ages of rocks, she and a classmate, Yujing, collected over 560,000 data points during a massive literature review. “It was tough, but she was patient and encouraged me,” says Fang. “Competition helped us to achieve quickly.” In addition to taking inspiration from teamwork, she recommends that students be passionate and patient. “Do basic things first, and read a lot of papers,” she advises. “Accumulate knowledge and achievements at the end.”

“The ability to learn is the most important skill” for success in Earth sciences, says Fang, followed closely by coding and computer skills. “[In China], traditional geology is not so popular [anymore]. Everyone wants to apply machine learning.” In her work, she uses computer programs like ArcGIS and languages like MATLAB and Python. Having used machine learning in her Master’s research, she predicts it will “improve in the future, in order to address geology problems.”

Fang presenting her research at an academic meeting.

Perseverance is also important for Fang, since the publication process can be challenging. During her master’s, she submitted a manuscript to a journal and received major revisions and “really mean” comments from reviewers. She had to revise her manuscript for months and add extra data analysis while isolating in her home village with her parents and grandmother due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “It was time-sensitive to solve these problems and publish the paper,” she says. “I thought about it all the time.”

Solving problems after a sustained effort is the most rewarding part of research for Fang: “when you think for a long time, then suddenly have the ideas.” In terms of the broader impact of her research, she hopes the public will understand that “the environment, including geomorphology and climate, impacts the activities of creatures, including humans: earth science is an important subject.”

*Thank you to Xianjun Fang, M.S., for sharing her story with 500WS Bern-Fribourg. Click here to find out more about her experience.

Gabrielle Vance

M.Sc. Geology