A call to action for gender equality

22 November 2016


Tim Wess

Ikon Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Academic institutions need to be proactive to achieve better gender equality in their workforce. 

It's time for the academic community to put action to words and stand up for greater gender equality.

Most women leave the academic workforce before they want to, while others do not progress as far as they could.

Those women who have families have to deal with the confounding pressures of academia; developing a profile demands international travel that takes a researcher away from her family. The main measure of researcher success — publications — also reflects on women who take career breaks.

The result, as countless studies and surveys have confirmed, is a heavily-skewed workforce that perpetuates the status quo — more men in senior positions and the majority of women in lower ranks, despite a fairly even gender divide embarking on science careers.

If you think this doesn’t apply to your organisation, take a moment to consider how many female academics in your workplace are in part-time, fixed-term teaching positions?

Many women fill these roles because it is the only option their organisation offered. Most female academics find themselves in work-places that penalize the career breaks so often necessitated by child-rearing. And although family responsibilities are far more equitably distributed now than in decades past, it is still women, in most cases, who sacrifice the greatest amount of time to take on the task.

It is time for action. Forty universities and research institutes in Australia are on a collective, yet individual, journey toward better gender-equality in the workforce.

Modelled on the United Kingdom’s successful Athena SWAN Charter, the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) initiative will assess universities on their policies and practices to eliminate gender bias.

So entrenched are some of the problems that significant cultural or organisation shifts will be required. Proactive measures will also be needed. These could range from releasing university timetables at the same time of year that people with child-caring needs can register at kindergarten, to limiting meetings to the core working day.

At my institution, Charles Sturt University, we are determined to reverse the trend of female researchers falling into part-time, fixed term teaching positions. Our first step is introducing a series of small research scholarships for casual staff.

Paying casual staff to do research for a day a week, or giving them seed funding to support projects, means they can retain the all-important balanced research/teaching portfolio, which will help them to apply for more substantive research positions later on. The initiative also ensures there is sufficient teaching staff to support the university’s needs.

We also need to be genuine about flexible working. If we consider a balance of online learning and face-to-face teaching good for students, that flexibility should also translate to staff. It’s all part of embracing a more diverse workforce.

SAGE allows institutions to share their best practices, and encourages them be daring in their ingenuity.

Some people stand at the edge of an issue, wring their hands and say that only the government can shift employment policy to develop equity. But there is another way, and we intend to show how it can be done.

Professor Tim Wess is the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Science at Charles Sturt University in Australia.


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