Home | Opinion | How much further from gender equity in higher education did the pandemic take us? Opinion

How much further from gender equity in higher education did the pandemic take us? Opinion

As we reflect on the state of the world on another International Women’s Day, we will soon be hearing the latest update on the size of the gender gap index. The World Economic Forum index is reported on at the end of March every year. 2021 saw the gap extend to 135.6 years due to the setback effects of Covid. That is how long it will take until the gender gap index measure of opportunities, for both men and women in the world, is the same.

Research published in Nature in the early stage of the pandemic was already highlighting the differential impact of the pandemic between genders in the world’s universities. It showed that working in lockdowns and under restrictions was making matters worse for women, more than it was for men.

Men were increasing their rate of writing papers by 6.4% while working from home while women’s publishing productivity went up only 2.7% and the proportion of women as authors on publications fell from 36 to 32% in that time. Women academics were registering their involvement on an even smaller proportion of research projects than men during the pandemic period than they were before it.

We all know the phenomena of women assuming more domestic housework, childcare and eldercare has been behind many of these issues. We also know that they have been exacerbated when remote working has increased. And our relatively high level of lockdowns and restrictions, in how the pandemic was managed in Australia, means this has impacted our female academics here even more than elsewhere.

The issue we now have is whether these patterns will change with returns to campus. What will your university do about its recruitment, promotion, and other work practices to create an even playing field?

We already know that student evaluations of teaching disadvantage women because of differential judgements made by students against what the gender stereotypes are “supposed“ to be like. And the loss of so many professional staff in the last two years has added to the extent to which service role gender biases play out. These see women disproportionately take up the roles that keep the system running, but don’t get you promoted. The plight of female academics on campus shows little signs of getting much easier soon, unless we do something about it.

The issues go further than gender equity to include addressing sexual harassment on Australian university campuses, and the feelings of safety and security of female staff and students returning to places of work and study for the new academic year. The social media feed of Australian academia is awash with pictures and tales of vibrant campuses and everything we would want them to be. It is a picture we are trying to promote to domestic and international students we want to come back to study, and to staff we want to come back to work. It is our hope for a return to a new normal. 

It is a harder job to sell this image now than it was before the pandemic. And it will be an even harder image to live up to and keep real as the weeks progress given how everyone’s expectations and practices have been reset. Would we really expect the widespread dip in campus attendance in week 3 and beyond to be less pronounced after the last two years?

If we are going to achieve gender equity on our campuses – and make them more productive, inclusive, collaborative and safe places of work, and welcoming places of study for disrupted returning students – we must change the culture. Every university in the country is doing everything it can to encourage people to call out bad and inappropriate behaviour that compromises safety and security in any way.

On International Women’s Day it is timely for us all to reflect on how we continue to develop a culture on our campuses that recognises the structural barriers and current circumstances for women. It needs us to accelerate the closing of a gap such that female academics get closer to having the same opportunities as men.

These were the key messages of the first of a series of HEDx Live events launched in Brisbane last week with the support of all nine of Queensland’s universities. Professor Marcia Devlin’s book Beating the Odds was launched at the event and she challenged Australian universities to do better than the WEF gender gap index reports.

At the event, Professor Helen Bartlett, VC of the University of the Sunshine Coast, said she looked forward to all staff returning to our campuses. She called out the need to be mindful of the differential impact of the pandemic ways of working on their recent academic productivity. And VC of UQ Professor Deborah Terry talked of the need to overcome the structural barriers and deeply embedded cultural practices that prevent women achieving parity in our university communities, and how crucial this is to us having productive and collaborative work environments.

All QLD VCs supporting this event committed their institutions to continue the work in closing the gender gap in the sector. Bond University VC Tim Brailsford pledged his personal commitment to that cause. With close to 300 current and future leaders attending, this overwhelming demonstration of concern and commitment to this issue is one that HEDx, with the support of OES, is taking next to all universities in NSW and Victoria, and beyond. It is a core part of the wider cultural issues of changing higher education for good in the hybrid world of the post-pandemic era.

And it was a strong feature of our conversation with the CEO of Universities Australia Catriona Jackson on the HEDx podcast last week that you can access here. In that conversation we touched upon the issues of speaking out on matters of great concern including of transparency and non-interference by government in ARC grant award processes. And it included the need to walk the tightrope of balancing management of foreign interference with actively pursuing large-scale international research collaboration.

But our commitment to reaching gender equity in Australian must be top of mind, this week and all weeks, if we are going to have campuses that staff and students want to return to, and want to keep coming back to. It’s time now to speak out on that.

Professor Martin Betts is emeritus professor at Griffith University and co-founder of HEDx.

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