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Assessing gender inequity in academia for International Women’s Day: opinion

Our recent critical review noted that gender inequity in academia exists across all traditional academic benchmarks, including grants and funding, publishing and citations, service, opportunities to attend professional development and conferences, and leadership opportunities. And, gender discrepancies result in a lack of representation of women in senior-level positions, increase burden and stress, and burnout

Grants and funding 

When it comes to grants and funding, male academics consistently receive funding two to three times more often than females (ARC, 2020). For example, an Australian Research Council (ARC) data review showed that 2,307 2019 grant recipients were men, compared to just 939 women.

Although these findings could result from fewer female applicants, the USA’s National Institute of Health found that in applicants where the primary investigator was female, they received 24 per cent less funding than their male counterparts. At the core, more funding results in more opportunities for research and, in turn, promotions and career advancement, which favours men at least three times more than women.  

Publishing and citations

A primary prerequisite for academic tenure and career advancement is publications, including quantity, quality and citation frequency. Women only account for less than 30 per cent of published academic authorship. Although certain fields have higher female publication rates, there are much lower rates among the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines. Further to this, female-first authorship has remained stagnant and has even declined in certain journals.

And, while women may submit papers for publication less frequently than men, this could be a result of several interrelated factors, including a lack of female mentors, a lack of confidence, work-life imbalance, and a lack of submission invitations


Female academics tend to undertake internal service roles more often than males, resulting in fewer opportunities for leadership roles. Men are more likely to undertake external service roles, which may lead to greater opportunities in the above listed areas. While service roles have the potential for promotion, they are time-consuming and often hinder research and other opportunities required for advancement.

Professional development and conference attendance

Another key to career advancement in academia is professional development; however, women often experience barriers to attending professional development and conference opportunities. Career responsibilities, family obligations and travel expectations often impede women from participating in opportunities that can help them advance their careers. 

Further, opportunities for professional development in leadership or management are more often provided to men than women. Not to mention, female academics often hold casual and sessional positions, resulting in them having to attend professional development sessions and conferences on their own time, unpaid. 

Leadership opportunities

There is an extreme lack of leadership opportunities for women in higher education, especially among research-based senior leadership roles. While women more often hold leadership positions related to community engagement and teaching and learning, the higher the ladder goes, the fewer opportunities exist for women. As such, men continue to dominate academia in higher ranks and there is a lack of female representation in the top academic positions. There is a need for women to occupy these higher positions in universities to encourage other women to aspire for similar positions to close this gap. 

What can institutions do about gender inequity?

To help facilitate changes in policy and practice, there are a number of areas for systemic intervention, including: 

  • Examination of legislation surrounding policy and practice on gender equity in academia 
  • Implementation of a gender-focused equity policy that incorporates family and carer responsibilities and work-life balance
  • Mentorship opportunities to support women in achieving leadership roles
  • Workshops aimed at identifying and confronting barriers to female advancement within higher education and within specific disciplines
  • Address and break down structural barriers in academia and home life, such as lack of institutional support, academic culture, and shared caregiving responsibilities
  • Challenge stereotypes and cultural norms about women’s role in academia through an increased presence of women in senior roles.

In addition to the higher education context, there are also additional social considerations. It is widely reported that women carry the bulk of the domestic load irrespective of whether they have children or not. It is important to note that often women who hold careers in academia face an incredible dilemma between continuing to advance their career and having a family, something men in academia do not necessarily have to endure.

Women are faced with delaying having children or having no children at all if they want to advance their careers in academia. A disproportionate number of women in academia choose not to have children compared to other professions, and it is important to ask what systemic pressures may be at play.  

Academia urgently requires systemic responses to gender inequity, and our findings have specific implications for policymakers and leaders. Let’s celebrate women in academia through ethical equity.

The Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice invites expressions of interest for submissions to a special issue Women and Leadership in Higher Education, led by Professor Angela Carbone (RMIT University) and Professor Kerryn Butler-Henderson (RMIT University). Further information is available on the journal’s website, with the issue to be published on International Women’s Day 2022.


Kelly-Ann Allen, Kerryn Butler-Henderson*, Andrea Reupert, Fiona Longmuir, Ilana Finefter-Rosenbluh, Emily Berger, Christine Grove, Amanda Heffernan, Nerelie C. Freeman, Sarika Kewalramani, Shiri Krebs**, Levita D’Souza, Grace Mackie, Denise Chapman and Marilyn Fleer.

Faculty of Education, Monash University, Clayton, Australia

*School of Health and Biomedical Sciences, RMIT University, Australia

**Faculty of Business and Law, Deakin University, Australia

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One comment

  1. Dear Team, I read with interest your article on the gender inequity in university. However, I don’t believe the article goes far enough in its analysis. These aspects of gender inequity are well established and researched across a wide range of industries and while it is distressing that it is also applicable in academia, it is not really unexpected.
    However, the significant elephant in the fridge that has not been mentioned here, is the use of bullying, harassment and intimidation that is also at play in academia. Having worked in the industry for over 20 years myself (I am female) I have been subject to each of these situations myself and this is arising from both men and women colleagues. It is not only my own experiences, but a number of my female colleagues have also experienced these issues and many of them have left the sector as a result.
    When taken in context of the current Australian parliament challenges for women and the resulting debates that are taking place, it seems that the research into gender equity in higher education, should necessarily include these challenges as central to this debate, and as central to potential strategies for moving forward.

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