Trendy Equality

13 May 2019

A report launched by the University of Melbourne late last year has found that the academic gender gap in Australian universities has narrowed over the last ten years and more females have achieved high level positions.

This report was conducted by Professor Emeritus Frank P. Larkins based on data from the Department
of Education and Training. According to his analysis, Australian universities have had an overall positive trend in promoting women’s representation, as demonstrated by the fact that nearly 1.4 female academics have been recruited for each new male academic since 2008.

“The University of Melbourne has made significant progress in recent years. There have been a number of proactive programs promoting women into academic roles,” Larkins said.

In the 2017 Annual Report the University lodged to Parliament, the proportion of female academic staff at the University is shown to have increased steadily from 46 per cent to 48 per cent from 2013 to 2017. Female professional staff retained a majority of more than 60 per cent.

Larkins is positive about the future trend of gender equality at the University. “I have no doubt that in a few years we will see gender equality in numbers of academic staff”, he said. “Already there is equality with respect to salaries and working conditions. A 50:50 employment balance is not far away.”

Larkins says his faith in the future of academic gender equality also lies in potential candidates in the future, which are current students. “In 2017 there were more domestic females than males graduating with research degrees, so the pool of talent is expanding,” he said.

While these figures show one thing, some students are more sceptical. Madeleine Johnson has a strong feeling of gender inequality in her field of study. She is
a masters student in pure mathematics and also the president of the Melbourne University Mathematics and Statistics Society (MUMS). She wrote a column on gender equality in maths for the last edition of Farrago.

Many of her female peers have ended their academic pathway in maths after graduation. “Only one out of the six people I interviewed said yes, they want to do a masters in that,” she said.

Madeleine thinks the biggest drop-off point of female students is between undergraduate and postgraduate. “To me when I was doing undergraduate subjects, it was like 25 per cent to 30 per cent [female students] studying math subjects and … goes down to like 5 per cent to 10 per cent [in masters],” she said.

It was even harder for her to find female lecturers to do projects with. During her whole undergraduate, she couldn’t even find one. She was surprised when she finally met two female lecturers in her first semester of her masters degree.

The University’s engagement with Athena Scientific Women’s Academic Network also indicates a strong interest in promoting women’s representation in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM). It is a program aiming to improve career opportunities and outcomes for women in typically male dominated STEMM fields. News with emphasis on female staff being promoted to senior positions keeps coming and institutes centred on empowering women are surging.

However, when Madeleine first stepped into a class almost occupied by male students she felt quite lost. “When I was studying I want to have friends that I can study with and feel part of the community, which is really important to me. Now it’s great, people who are studying there are great and there is a lovely sense of community, but it’s a real shame that there are not more women. It would be a lot better with more women”, she said.

As an executive member of MUMS, Madeleine has set a quota of 40 per cent women in the club and reserved certain high-level positions for women or non-binary students. “In the University there are many student clubs trying to give women a voice, like Women in Tech and the Women’s department of the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU).”

The University is also making an effort. Various departments have launched their own programs promoting women’s representation such as Women of Bio21 and the Centre for Women’s Mental Health Research. However, female students like Madeleine haven’t felt the effects of these efforts.

Madeleine only realized there were staff and professors at the University who care about this issue after starting her job at the MUMS and talking to them about her concerns over women’s representation in her discipline. She really felt alone when she was at the crossroads after graduation.

“The university and individual schools should be really trying to take more proactive measures, and do better job communicating them with students. The sad thing is that even when the schools and faculties do great stuff, the students aren’t really aware of it. They don’t really know, so they don’t have impact on the students.”

UMSU Women’s Officers did not respond to requests to comment on the University’s report.


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