Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Ursula Keller

Creating a university culture where women thrive: statistics and special measures

As pioneering women in male-dominated STEM fields (i.e. Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) move up the leadership ladder at universities, key challenges have become more apparent. Even with external political support using affirmative action efforts and special measures, overall numbers have remained small, and many of these women still do not feel fully welcome and accepted in their departments. Taking ETH Zurich’s example, their first ten tenured women professors were hired by 1997, however by 2018 – 20 years later – only 13% of the faculty were female full professors. A survey this year (2020) showed at least 23% of female professors experienced some discrimination within the previous two years. ETH’s first-ever termination of a tenured professor, a woman, was based on “inappropriate leadership”.

This raises some questions: Why is progress so slow? Why was the first termination of a professor a woman? (Was her performance so substantially worse than other (male) colleagues and would the same have occurred if her gender was different?) In my talk, I will try to give insights based on my 27-years of experience as a tenured physics professor at ETH, and give some concrete recommendations for change. Even with clear legal requirements with regards to equal opportunities, independent checks, balances, and grievance procedures are necessary for sufficient oversight – and ultimately credibility – in the existing university culture.

Many of these measures can be achieved efficiently and without significant cost to the university – if the political will and leadership is behind these changes. In the end, the benefits flow to the entire university (including male professors and staff, and any other person or group which could be marginalized) and makes the university more attractive and competitive in the top international playing field where ETH belongs.

Ursula Keller has been a tenured professor of physics at ETH Zurich since 1993 (, and serves as a director of the Swiss research program NCCR MUST in ultrafast science since 2010 ( She received a „Diplom“ at ETH Zurich in 1984, a Ph.D. at Stanford University USA in 1989, was a Member of Technical Staff at Bell Labs USA 1989 to 1993. She has been a co-founder and board member for Time-Bandwidth Products (acquired by JDSU in 2014) and for GigaTera (acquired by Time-Bandwidth in 2003). Her research interests are exploring and pushing the frontiers in ultrafast science and technology. Awards include the SPIE Gold Medal (2020), IEEE Edison Medal (2019), the European Inventor Award for lifetime achievement (2018), IEEE Photonics Award (2018), OSA Charles H. Townes Award (2015), LIA Arthur L. Schawlow Award (2013), ERC advanced grants (2012 and 2018), EPS Senior Prize (2011), OSA Fraunhofer/Burley Prize (2008), Leibinger Innovation Prize (2004), and Zeiss Research Award (1998).

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