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‘Good girls’ don’t ‘beat the odds’ in Australian universities: Marcia Devlin

The first thing to know about Professor Marcia Devlin’s forthcoming book Beating the Odds: A practical guide to navigating sexism in Australian universities is that it is a guide for “ambitious women” committed to systemic and long overdue change across Australia’s university sector.

It is, as the press release states, “a call-to arms for women to take matters into their own hands” – a guide to help them navigate what has traditionally been a highly sexist sector. However, this book isn’t entirely aimed at women; of course, “enlightened men”, as Devlin calls them, must surely be part of the solution and not the problem.

So what are the odds?

To frame the discussion about why women need “to beat the odds”, Devlin – a highly respected and published academic with 30 years’ experience in the sector – outlines some key statistics, including up-to-date percentages of male and female lecturers at different levels in Australia. While gender equity in terms of lecturer levels has stubbornly improved in the last decade, there is a long way to go in addressing gender imbalance at the senior levels.

“At the time of writing this chapter in January 2021, of Australia’s 37 public university vice-chancellors, 10 are women (27 per cent) and 27 are men (73 per cent),” Devlin writes. 

“That’s a percentage point difference of 50 percent and a percentage difference of – wait for it – 170 percent. There are 170 percent more male than female vice-chancellors in Australian public universities.

“Arguably, education is a traditionally female area, yet even in this sector, the majority – in this case around three-quarters – of the top jobs in Australia are held by men.” 

Devlin also points out that men hold the vast majority of chancellor positions, constituting 28 of the 37 positions. 

Sexism and unconscious gender bias

After unpacking a number of common excuses proffered for why women are often overlooked for university leadership positions (women have babies, society is sexist, and men are more often the ones in charge of making important decisions in universities), Devlin uses an interesting anecdote to illustrate the nature of unconscious gender bias. It is worth quoting in full. 

“Unconscious gender bias works against women in universities in subtle ways,” Devlin says. 

“Women are not imagined in the top jobs. A couple of years ago, I gave an invited guest lecture and workshop on leadership to a group of high-achieving undergraduate students at an exclusive Australian university…

“I...told the students a made-up, detailed story about a sick cat. I asked them to do the following tasks: draw and name the cat; draw and name the owner of the cat; draw and name the vet that the cat owner had taken the sick cat to see; and draw and name the CEO of the multinational company at which the vet worked.

“Seventy-five percent of these young, enlightened, future leaders drew a male as the CEO, despite half the group being female. None of those who had drawn the CEO as a man could clearly articulate why they had done so. Several were upset with themselves. 

“I explained that bias happens automatically, without us knowing, through quick assessments and judgements – influenced by our background, environment and personal experiences. We all have biases or ingrained prejudices, whether we know of or admit to them or not. 

“They serve useful biological purposes but are not so useful in the workplace, especially if you’re a woman."

So, how can aspirational women reach senior levels?

Devlin contends that developing the right set of attitudes is essential for females climbing up the higher education ladder. These include a knowing attitude, a confident attitude, a determined attitude, and a humorous attitude, among others.

A particularly interesting and funny attitude the academic also recommends is a “handling being manterrupted with attitude”. She explains it in the following way: 

“When I first started working at one university where the culture was very masculine and manterrupting women was normal and accepted, I was taken aback. After a while of adopting an attitude of calm confidence, anger and determination immediately after I was manterrupted, I started saying, ‘I haven’t finished.’ If the person who had manterrupted me kept going with their manterruption, I’d repeat, ‘I haven’t finished.’”

While Devlin emphasises the importance of countering “manterrupting”, she also explains that a woman’s leadership style is important in coming across as assertive rather than plain scary. On the topic of men, the academic also underscores the importance of men in achieving gender parity in academic leadership in one of the chapters.

Developing strategies is another recommendation Devlin makes for female academics aiming for the upper echelons of universities. Indeed, she goes so far as to say “without a carefully executed strategy designed to help you beat the odds, you are likely to become a statistic”. 

“Without carefully planning for, and proactively anticipating and managing, the obstacles that will hold you back as a female in academia, you will probably end up as one of the majority of women at the lower levels of academia. “

Devlin recommends developing ten-year plans and then breaking those plans into one-year ones. As part of planning to become a leader, she also underscores the need to “start saying no and start being bad at housework”.

“Right now, if you are a typical woman, you are spending much of these limited resources on doing what is asked of you and on domestic and institutional housework,” Devlin states.

“You are spending your resources on being a good girl. But these activities simply don’t count for advancement in academia. Continuing to do them is contributing to holding back your advancement.”

In summary, Devlin's book is a “clarion call” to aspirational female academics across the country. It is a well-researched and highly engaging explanation of the forces that contribute to the inherent sexism permeating Australia’s universities. But, more importantly, It is also a tried and tested road map for female academics seeking leadership positions, grounded in her own experiences and observations of what works and what doesn’t.

Beating the Odds: A practical guide to navigating sexism in Australian universities is due for publication on May 17, 2021.

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