the incredible disappearing women of academia

Mission Australia’s 2013 youth survey found “For the first time ever, young women ranked equity and discrimination as the top issue facing the country….“. Perhaps this is not surprising given the treatment Australia’s first female Prime Minister received from the media during her term of office. What saddens me deeply is that the ultra-negative message about women in leadership trumpeted by many in the media is influencing a whole new generation. I was astonished at a family gathering in June last year when my 11-year old nephew told his high-achieving female family elders “I don’t think a woman should be Prime Minister“.

The issue of gender equity and discrimination is one that has occupied quite a bit of my time over the past few years. You see, as a female professor, I am in a distinct minority.

But when I started my scientific career in the early 1980s, there were about as many young women as there were young men undertaking the same undergraduate Pharmacy degree, and women were awarded the majority of academic prizes on offer. As a Master of Pharmacy student with mentor Professor Peter Andrews in the mid-1980s, again there was no noticeable difference in the gender balance of students. And as a DPhil student at Oxford in the late 1980s, gender balance wasn’t an issue either. Indeed, I was surrounded by amazing female role models: Nobel Laureate Dame Professor Dorothy Hodgkin was still attending seminars and my DPhil co-supervisor was the inspirational Dame Professor Louise Johnson. Perhaps I was just lucky that the field of crystallography, into which I had stumbled, was one with a long history of female pioneers. In any case, it was at about this point I suddenly and consciously realised that being a woman and succeeding in science were not mutually exclusive.

My DPhil was awarded in 1990, and after an ill-fated post-doctoral appointment at Bond University and a much more successful placement at Rockefeller University – with the amazing HHMI Investigator Professor John Kuriyan – I established my own lab in Australia in 1993. I’ve had great male and female mentors encouraging me to succeed, offering advice and pointing me in the right direction. I’ve scaled more metaphorical academic ladders than I ever dreamed possible. Yet I’ve also witnessed and experienced unconscious bias, overt sexist behaviour, and discrimination on the basis of gender. Twenty years on, the gender imbalance at my level is very obvious to me and very concerning. Over my career, women colleagues have disappeared from academia at a much greater rate than men. Now, I am often the only woman present in meetings of my peers.

In their recent paper Sixteen years of change for Australian female academics: progress or segmentation?  Marchant and Wallace (AUR Vol 55 (2) 2013) evaluated data collected from the Australian higher education sector over roughly the same time period that I’ve been an independent research scientist. Gender equity for Australian university students was achieved in 1987, and for university staff as a whole this was achieved in 2001. The percentage of women at academic level A in research-only positions has been above 50% since at least 1997. But women did not achieve parity at research-only Level B till 2009, at least 12 years later. Equality at research-only levels C through to E (where E=professor) has yet to be achieved. Overall, the authors’ conclude:

  • “Raw numbers mask ongoing, systematic underrepresentation of… women in the desirable career track roles and higher status levels
  • Males still constitute a large majority of the academic professoriate
  • Women’s overall status in Australian Universities continues to improve, albeit slowly
  • Apparent gains are patchy and women tend to be confined to ‘bad’ jobs as casual teachers
  • Overall, the increasing numbers of women (in academia) mask segmentation and marginalisation.”

At my own university the percentage of women professors hovered just under 20% from 2008-2012, though on the up-side it has increased from ~13% in 2003. However, at the current rate, it will be another 50 years before professorial gender equality is achieved. This low ratio of women at the top level, and the slow rate of change, is by no means unique. The gendered nature of universities and other research institutes is a worldwide phenomenon. The international journal Nature featured a series of articles in March 2013 for International Women’s Day on the issue of women in science, and highlighted the Lack of Female Leaders in UK universities in Dec 2013.  Recently, a vibrant discussion on the issue of gender segregation in religious lectures and debates at UK universities raised wry smiles. Gender segregation, vertical and horizontal, is already entrenched at Universities: men hold a greater proportion of higher level appointments and women hold a greater proportion of teaching-only roles at the lower levels.

In future posts I’m planning to write on specific issues that contribute to gender segregation, discrimination and inequality in academia.

Making universities better workplaces for women will improve their quality for everyone” Curt Rice has eloquently stated. I may be an idealist, but I’d like to think that such changes in the university workplace will happen, and that it won’t take 50 years. I’d also like to think that sometime in the relatively near future, young Australian women – our daughters, sisters, nieces – won’t feel that equality and discrimination is the major issue facing this country.  And I’d like to think that young Australian men – our sons, brothers, nephews (definitely nephews in my case) – won’t get themselves into hot water by parroting sexist media claptrap about women and their leadership qualities.

3 thoughts on “the incredible disappearing women of academia

  1. Jenny, did you ask your nephew why a woman should not be Prime Minister? I agree with you that I thought that things would have better for younger female scientists by now. But may be comments by 11 year old males indicate that it is going to take more than two generations to attain gender equality.

  2. Thank you for raising this issue as it is difficult to speak out for ourselves without feeling that we are being negative, but my friends and family are amazed that I have not achieved a high status appointment at a University given my high level of post graduate qualifications and voluntary efforts for professional organisations? I am frustrated that I have devoted a large portion of my life to studies (PhD level) that have not enhanced my career, even at classroom teacher level, as I have been unable to secure an elusive permanent teaching position, despite being told that I perform better than permanent existing teachers, by Year level co-ordinators, Principals and importantly, students. I have even accepted positions at some of the most challenging schools and even a year as an acting Head Of Department. I am about to turn 55, and although I am a highly qualified and published numeracy specialist, am fit and fortunately in perfect health, this will be my ninth year as a casual relief teacher, in order to meek out a living for myself?
    I feel as though a mentoring system for females needs to be seriously supported at senior levels and any guidance in that direction will be gratefully received. Thank you.

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