Home | Gender equity in higher education: gaining access, winning respect and overcoming challenges
ANU professor Sharon Bell.

Gender equity in higher education: gaining access, winning respect and overcoming challenges

Constraints on acceptable leadership models and access to the more respected professional realms are among the enduring challenges for women in academia.

In its inaugural edition of August 1991, Campus Review ran the following quotation from then-assistant registrar for appointments at USYD, Dr Pat Miller: "It’s easy to put a woman down – many women are defined by the stage of their menstrual cycle, or lack of one, their femininity or who they slept with to attain a position of power."

In the article, titled “Why women should take higher profile”, Miller went on to say that she felt women were obliged to raise community consciousness about discrimination issues.

25 years on, Campus Review speaks with one of Australia’s most senior and respected gender equity research experts, Australian National University’s professor Sharon Bell, about what she thinks has changed in this space over the last quarter century.

Bell began her academic career as an anthropologist and ethnographic filmmaker in the 1980s. She completed a PhD before heading into leadership roles at various universities, most recently at Charles Darwin University, where she was deputy vice-chancellor for five years.

Here, she discusses the experiences that have affected her own career, whether attitudes such as those Miller highlighted in 1991 have endured, and how power dynamics affect the ability to bring about positive change.

CR: Would you have agreed with Dr Miller’s quote back in 1991 and have such societal attitudes become less mainstream or are they still ingrained?

SB: If I think about my own career, there have been some defining moments that do fit that view. Probably the first was in Year 10, when I saw the careers adviser to talk about what subjects I should choose for the higher school certificate. I was very keen to be a vet, and the careers adviser said to me: “Oh no, you’re too small and you’re not strong enough to be a vet".

Obviously that meant that I began to look differently at what sort of career options were open to me. That was probably the point when a path, even if it was not consciously taken, led me away from the sciences and into the humanities and creative arts. I wouldn’t agree with Pat Miller’s entire quote. Times have changed in terms of women’s agency and ability to affect change and develop professional profiles that are efficacious.

So the thing for women, particularly in leadership roles, is to recognise that all good leadership is contextual. You have to understand the context, and you have to draw from a repertoire of leadership strategies to be effective. It seems the difference between women and men in leadership is that women’s repertoire is much more constrained. It’s constrained by a whole of range of deeply held beliefs about what leaders look like, how they should behave, and forms of behaviour that are acceptable or even celebrated in men, but discouraged or unacceptable in women. You’re constantly negotiating this space. It’s not easy for any women in leadership roles; certainly it requires far more nuancing and self-reflection than it does for most men.

Throughout my career, I have been labelled a ‘difficult woman’. Difficult because I have not accepted the status quo? Difficult because I have sought to speak truth to power? Difficult because of my impatience with incompetent men who rise to senior roles? Difficult because I have privileged collegial decision-making and enabling cultures over compliance? Difficult because of those prickly days when the political becomes personal? I’ve been found to be simultaneously strident and too caring.

It’s true, however that women now are less defined by their male colleagues and associates. Their academic lineage, in one sense, doesn’t define who they are. But that lineage is important in terms of who is sponsoring you. It’s not just who your mentors are, it’s also whether there are people in the sector who are actively supporting you in taking on roles of responsibility.

I find it interesting that every now and again certain narratives emerge around women in leadership. It’s hard to imagine those same narratives emerging in the same form around men. For instance, we’ve seen much discussion recently around the ‘Queen bee syndrome’. The women or the generation of women who’ve been successful and gained leadership roles are perceived as being protective of their own base and not being adequately supportive of younger women coming through. At the same time, we have a narrative that absolutely celebrates men who are promoting diversity. For women to promote a gender agenda in leadership roles is much harder than for men. You know we have male Champions of Change, which is fantastic, but the men involved in those initiatives are absolutely celebrated and constantly applauded for what they’re doing. Women may be seen to be showing self-interest or favouring a particular proportion of the workforce.

In an editorial for Campus Review earlier this year, University of Southern Queensland vice-chancellor Jan Thomas wrote: “Gender equality is not a women’s issue and achieving it is not a question of ‘getting men on board’. Men and women must be equal partners in this process.” However, some still argue that gender equity is a women’s issue. What do you see as the role for men if we are to achieve genuine gender equity?

There’s a fundamental issue that sits behind that question – all the research tells us that in organisations, leadership is absolutely critical. In terms of diversity and gender equality if you do not have buy-in of the leaders, it’s extremely difficult to change the organisational culture and the opportunities that are available for individuals or groups of individuals. In debating this, you need to keep that in mind. It doesn’t matter whether those people in leadership are men or women, the role is absolutely critical to driving change. By definition, that means we do absolutely need male leaders and female leaders both to be engaged in the diversity agenda, and promoting that agenda. However, this is often a difficult or contested space for women.

I’m not saying it’s not contested for men; there is push back, particularly if affirmative action agendas are implemented. But by and large, the men who take on this change role are regarded as champions. They are regarded with a great deal of positive feedback, and positive responses.

Your most recent paper, Ivory Towers and Glass Ceilings: Women in Non-traditional Fields, gives a historical overview of the various legislative approaches that have been employed, across jurisdictions, with the intention of delivering a fairer professional environment for women. What difference have legislative approaches made and what difference can they make?

There’s absolutely no question that the legislative environment is an absolutely critical foundation for achieving greater diversity, and for seeing the participation of women in a wider range of disciplines and professions. Legislation is critical, but in addition to the legislation you need absolutely clear policy agendas that are driving change and rewarding those changes.

Your paper goes on to suggest the need to move away from an “accommodation of women” approach towards a focus on reframing the professional environment, which you note may call into question conventional masculinities. Can you elaborate on this point?

It’s been documented in many different forms and on various occasions that the majority of academic staff work about 50 to 60 hours a week. There is also a top end, working even longer hours than that.

Alongside this, research tells us that it is women who are primarily shouldering the greatest responsibility for childbearing, childcare, and domestic duties as well. I have two sons, when they were in late primary school, junior high school, I was a dean. I used to get up at 4am to do three hours of research before I got them ready to go to school, because that was how I could invest that time in my own career without it affecting the quality of my relationship with them. Something has to give.

I’m optimistic about change, and I believe we’re seeing a real recognition for increasing flexibility in patterns of work. We’re also seeing an emerging generation of young men who want the opportunity to engage actively in the parenting of children, even young children.

What were the key barriers you personally felt you overcame in order to achieve the positions that you have at various stages in your career and how have these challenges changed for the generations following you?

There’s no question that balancing responsibilities inside and outside the university caused a major set of tensions for many years of my career. I don’t think it had a negative impact on my professional role in the day job, but it did affect availability and capacity to engage in informal networking, and there were bad days when domestic matters were overwhelming and you had to race home to sort things out. Most women don’t have the opportunity or desire to go the pub at the end of the day on a Friday afternoon or the footy at the weekend with their colleagues to build those critical interpersonal relationships that do lead to more senior colleagues sponsoring you, actively supporting you.

Also, women are clustered in particular disciplinary areas, and many opportunities for senior roles come to those who are from certain disciplinary backgrounds. I’ve sort of managed to crash down some barriers in this space, but I come from an arts and creative arts background. I’m a filmmaker. I’m an anthropologist. These are not the disciplines that are seen to be the best basis for leadership roles.

Many of our leaders have science degrees or are engineers, or have law degrees. Because of which disciplines are dominant and how women often aren’t in those areas, you do get unequal representation. For instance, the research tells us that men tend to be socialised into the world of commercialisation. If we have research agendas that favour and reward commercialisation, and if we have an innovation agenda that promotes entrepreneurship, what are the consequences of that going to be for women? Are we going to be open and are we going to ensure that women have the opportunity to be socialised into those spaces, or are we going to have subconscious assumptions that women aren’t by and large going to be the people leading in these areas?

Has the gradual evolution of the equity agenda in higher education fostered an understanding that equity is something that must be granted in a broader sense, be it around sexuality, gender identity, culture or ethnicity?

Unsurprisingly, it seems to be emerging quite conclusively from research that if you create an environment where you might be strongly promoting, for instance, a gender equality agenda, then that benefits everyone within the organisation, not just women.

This is because underpinning that is the value of diversity. There’s no question there has now been a long running focus on gender equality in parts of the sector. That focus on diversity means you begin to change the culture of organisations. It makes room for a range of diverse populations. It creates the capacity to give voice to people who may have been silent minorities in the past.

You’ve said you’re quite optimistic about the possibility for change – why is that?

It’s critical that we remain optimistic about change. If you go back not far, to a time when we had few women in our universities, we had all sorts of constraints around women’s employment, including the cessation of employment in the public service if women married. The gains have been extraordinary, but there is a still a long way to go. We need to keep in mind just how far we have come and gain confidence from past and recent achievements.

Hear professor Sharon Bell speak about equality in the tertiary education sector at Campus Review's Higher Equity Summit in Sydney on Monday, September 26.

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