Frau in Schwimmbad

Counting Lengths

Katja Rost conducts research into equality, diversity and digitalization. The former competitive swimmer is a firm believer in performance over quotas.
As a way of getting more women into leadership positions, she suggests reviving a historic selection method.

Text: Alice Werner

Pictures: Marc Latzel

Translation: Caitlin Stephens

The summer may have been a wash-out, with few opportunities to go to the open-air pool, but that didn’t matter to sociology professor Katja Rost: “Indoor swimming is an all-weather activity.” The former top-level swimmer prefers the bright blue of a swimming pool with its lanes, tiles and geometric order over unpredictable wild swimming in lakes or rivers. “I like to be able to see the bottom – there are definitely too many fish in the lake!” she laughs with a shudder.

Now in her mid-forties, she still trains at the pool two to four times a week. The power and speed of swimming, with its steady rhythm and uniform movements, fascinates her. She can usually be found plowing up and down the lanes at Fohrbach pool near her home in Zollikon. Over the years she has gradually stopped timing herself quite so strictly, but counting lengths is a habit that she will never break.

Lost homeland

We had wanted to talk over lunch in Zurich’s old town or at one of the lakeside restaurants on her beloved Gold Coast – “it has such lovely villages, I’m a country girl at heart” – but the date of our interview falls during her family holidays back home. Although home is perhaps not the right word, says Rost: “As an East German, I lost my homeland in 1989.” Nevertheless, she still enjoys returning to Gera, the town in Thuringia where she grew up. As we start our online call, she waves into the webcam in relaxed holiday mode. Black sports top, short spiky hair, on-trend glasses – and in the background a glass cabinet with ceramic tankards and tin cups. “Not very stylish, huh?” she chuckles. Katja Rost laughs a lot doing our conversation, her peals of laughter relaxed but loud. It’s true, the “beer tankard setting” may not be particularly stylish, but it has a certain authentic flair. And the collection of Thuringian beer mugs provides the perfect backdrop to talk about her childhood in the GDR.

Born in Chemnitz, Katja Rost was brought up by her single mother, the director of a university of applied sciences. There was nothing unusual in the GDR about a mom going out to work at 6am, having a career and raising a child alone. In the 1980s, when Rost was growing up, the state guaranteed free daycare in nurseries and kindergartens – for ideological and economic reasons. Rost, whose research focuses on gender equality in the economy, among other things, points out that the state-organized compatibility of work and family life had nothing to do with supporting women. “Firstly, the socialist system was reliant on the female workforce, and secondly, it was a way for the state to maintain control over children’s upbringing and education.”

When her mother married and moved to Gera to live with her husband, she was offered a public teaching post – a demotion that she accepted for love. Little Katja’s upbringing, from infancy right through to completing school, was also planned by the state. Because her parental home was politically acceptable, she never experienced reprisals. “I have positive memories of my childhood in the GDR. Perhaps because I basically grew up in the swimming pool.” At age six, she was identified at school as a potential high-performance swimmer. Soon she was training five times a week. Her disciplines back then were 400 meter backstroke, 400 meter individual medley and 800 meter crawl. When asked about her best time, she answers self-deprecatingly: “I was no Franzi van Almsick.” She swam for love of the sport and for the community she found in the pool, and she didn’t let the pressure faze her.

Charm and feminine humor

Katja Rost describes the fall of the wall as “the most significant event in my life story”. She was only 13 at the time, but in the GDR her career had been planned for years into the future. And then on 9 November 1989, the life that had been mapped out for her crumbled along with the wall. “I felt as if my future had been stolen,” recalls Rost.
As our conversation warms up, Rost gesticulates a lot and runs her hands through her short black hair when thinking. Her voice is softer than one might expect: When telling anecdotes from her childhood she lapses into an almost girlish singsong. Rost’s own description of herself is “a pragmatic type and a good sort”. She exudes both those characteristics: Charm and feminine humor combined with ambition and persistence. The latter traits, in particular, stood her in good stead during the Wende period. Experiencing such great changes in her homeland taught her to take charge of her own fate. And so at 18, Katja decided not to follow general expectations and study something “useful” like medicine, law, engineering or business, but to pursue a subject purely because it interested her: Sociology.

After completing her undergrad degree in Leipzig, her career quickly took off. She gained a doctorate in business administration at TU Berlin and joined the UZH Faculty of Business, Economics and Informatics just a few years later, where she obtained her habilitation. That same year, aged 34, she took on an assistant professorship at the University of Mannheim, before returning merely a year later to Jena as professor of management studies. Rost has been back at UZH since 2012, as full professor of sociology and privatdozent in business and economics. One of her research focuses is business and organizational sociology. She conducts studies analyzing the labor market in terms of discrimination and equality, for example looking at companies’ hiring practices, policies on salaries, family life and diversity, and researches the career trajectories of women in leadership roles.

Finding the best talent, fairly

One subject which has preoccupied the sociology professor for many years is currently a hot topic: Filling leadership positions by drawing lots. In November, the Swiss people voted on the justice initiative. The initiative proposes that federal judges should in future be chosen by drawing lots from a group of candidates pre-selected based purely on their expertise and personal attributes, independent of their political affiliation. For Katja Rost, bringing back this old form of selection, which was traditionally used in ancient democracies as well as in much of local Swiss politics, would be “a great way of preventing party biases and old boys clubs”.

She is currently overseeing a comprehensive project examining selection by lots. One question she is interested in is the question of why staffing decisions, which are generally a purely competitive process based on performance, don’t always lead to the best person being chosen. Whether for CEOs, professors, heads of corporations, federal councilors or bishops, Rost says filling leadership positions often resembles a game of chance. Decisions by committee, in particular, are often more like a lottery than a rational selection process, as subjective interests and individual decisions of the various experts have too much weight. “Who gets the position ultimately depends on the composition of the personnel commission.”

Rost, who became president of the UZH Gender Equality Commission in 2019, is convinced that the number of female professors at universities could be increased by using a selection process based on drawing lots. In such a process, internalized biases would be eliminated. “Women who win in a competitive process are unfortunately still punished in the way they are perceived afterward. People are quick to accuse them of having sharp elbows. However, Rost doesn’t have much truck with a quota system – a woman who gains a position thanks to quotas is implicitly judged as being less capable. “In contrast, a woman who is selected for a leadership position by drawing lots would not receive such negative feedback. At the end of the day, she has the same statistical probability of being selected as anyone else in the pool, all of whom meet the requirements of the post.”

This conclusion brings us to the conclusion of our interview. Katja Rost has talked a lot and openly, about her personal and professional life – from the swimming pool as a sociotope and Switzerland as a second home to diversity as a fashion trend. “But now I really have to stop,” she says determinedly and then laughs once again – “lunch is always punctual at my parents’ place!”