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.

“Portrait of a (Working) Mother” runs from 6-9 March in the Main Hall of the Main Building of ETH Zurich, Rämistrasse 101, 8092 Zurich. For more information on the exhibit, visit

Find out more about the photographer Marina Cavazza, co-author of the project.
What’s on for International Women’s day?
ETH Zurich has been ranked sixth worldwide in the QS World University Rankings since last year, making it the best university in continental Europe.