Women in Higher Education: A Conversation Worth Having

5 November 2018

Content warning: references to sexual violence

At the beginning of August, the University of Melbourne held its annual Women in Higher Education Week, aiming to explore the experiences of women in tertiary education, both the positive aspects and some of the challenges. A few weeks later, as some sort of distantly linked follow-up, I had the chance to moderate a panel aiming to unpack some of the gendered structures that affect women in this field and explore avenues for change.

Sitting with me on a Thursday afternoon were three remarkable women who had achieved great success in the field of higher education: Professor Jenny Hocking, research professor at Monash University and prolific author; Dr Sarah French, lecturer at the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education and author of a recent book on Australian feminist theatre; and Cecilia Widjojo, 2018 UMSU welfare office bearer and Arts student extraordinaire.

Hocking, having worked in the industry for decades, had some insights on the history of women at universities. “I began at a period where some, if not all, of the areas where I was initially looking for work had never had a woman in a tenured position—ever—which is extraordinary,” she reflected. “And if you look now, you do see huge change, particularly in the Arts faculties and in that domain, and that has been a wonderful thing.”

French was more cautious, suggesting that it is often difficult for women to compete for permanent positions, especially when such roles are awarded based on an academic’s publication profile and grant successes, which can be an issue for women who have had career interruptions. She considered a feminist lens indispensable to her work, which has spanned several disciplines including higher education, theatre and performance, and film and television studies. “I think a feminist perspective helps to reveal the way power functions at systemic levels. It is not just about the individual, it is about the way that institutions function in ways that can limit female participation and achievement. And so a feminist analysis allows us to unpick those systemic problems.”

Widjojo, as the student representative on the panel, also found the feminist lens critical to her work at UMSU. “I think it has affected my work in the sense that I pay more attention to the participation of males and females in all of our events, and also in terms of our projects,” she said. “When we do things in relation to, say, sexual assault and sexual education, it is important to highlight how women are disadvantaged in terms of consent and boundaries, and also how assault and abuse impact women in a very disproportionate way.”

All three speakers pointed to diversity quotas as an effective method of empowering women in the workplace. Widjojo was particularly appreciative of actions taken by the student union. “We are very lucky to have [affirmative action] implemented already,” she said, adding, however, that men’s voices still tended to be dominant and that mansplaining was not uncommon.

“Sometimes things get broken down by challenging the stereotype of what is the normal voice and even the normal image,” Hocking offered. “One thing quotas will do is ensure that women are present… which means that that there’s an impact on men simply by listening to other voices and hearing other voices, seeing other images and becoming accustomed to that as a norm, whereas so long as those things are in a minority, the norm remains—a male norm.”

French questioned whether opponents of affirmative action were failing to distinguish between equality and equity. “Equity is about giving everyone an opportunity to be successful, and that means acknowledging that people are situated differently, on the basis of gender, as well as on the basis of race and class and other identity categories,” she said. “And so to give women equal opportunity you do need to employ equity strategies.”

On whether institutions of higher education played a positive role in political and cultural movements, Widjojo commented that universities could tend to be a few steps ahead in terms of ideology. “I think this is evident in the ones initiating change… Sometimes it begins from the university, it starts from student movements, people studying in higher education. It is an indicator that it is a hotbed for new ideas.”

All in all, our panelists were quite optimistic about trends in feminism. French was pleased to see that younger generations are increasingly engaged with feminist issues, observing that women tended to distance themselves from the feminist label in the early 2000s. She also reflected positively on the increasing awareness of intersectionality and recent movements in feminism. “In the past year I think we have seen a growing feminist consciousness both in Australia and internationally and a shift in the ways in which women are responding to acts of gendered discrimination, harassment and violence. Issues that were silenced in the past are now being called out. The #metoo movement is a clear example of this, as was the public outcry following the police response to the murder of Eurydice Dixon.”

“I think we tend to be very pessimistic about the situation for women and clearly women do face particular problems in many workplaces, including academia,” said Hocking. “But,” she later added, “it’s important to recognise that we’ve come a long way and to learn from the strategies and measures that have generated change and use them to keep fighting against the barriers that persist.”

Annie Jiang moderated this panel, which was an event hosted by Women in Commerce and Politics, a new club based at the University of Melbourne striving for increased representation of female students in the areas of Commerce and Politics.

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