How can universities contribute to gender equality?

By Linda Peach and Heidi Sundin

Universities are uniquely placed to embed gender equality in our social and employment systems, and yet this influence is poorly understood and used only in a scattershot fashion. We would like to see universities better use their place in the world to help ensure that gender equality becomes a norm in both our social and employment landscapes.

Mental models

Beyond skills-based training, universities develop and translate mental models about how the world works to students, who then take them out into the world of work and implement them.  For all the criticism we hear that university graduates are too ‘theoretical’ and not ‘technical’ enough, academic theories of behaviour and systems are essential to our understanding of the world.  Mental models are academic theories operating in real time.

Imagine our world today without Einstein’s theory of general relativity, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Freud’s theory of the unconscious mind or Alexander Fleming’s theory about the Penicillium mould.  An employee who understands the theory of why something works the way it does can bring value that goes beyond just knowing how to make it work.

Gender equality is grounded in theories of how people think and behave

There are a number of theories that underpin our understanding of gender inequality and inform the ways we go about redressing it.  From early theories about sexism and stereotyping through feminist theories of systemic barriers to equality to modern theories of benevolent sexism and the male model of work, the concept of a gender equal world is firmly grounded in theory.  When we read articles in the press about sex discrimination, sexual harassment, gender pay gaps, or the difficulties of being a mother and having a career, these ideas have all originated with academic theories about why the world disadvantages women in comparison to men.

Universities can both teach and apply these theories

As organisations, universities are unique ecosystems.  Most universities employ large workforces of both academic and support workers.  The ways that universities apply equal opportunity across all levels of their workforces impacts the way their thousands of employees develop expectations of equal treatment and translate their experience to the outside world.  Universities also have a significant role to play as public adovocates for social change, and gender equality is an area where universities would do well to develop a higher profile in advocating for change.

Of course, the largest population in any university is students.  Over the course of a single year, a university is uniquely placed to have a profound impact on the way tens of thousands of students think about the world, including how they think about gender and about equality.  How the staff who interact with students experience equality in their workplaces will have a considerable impact on how they impart knowledge about equality to students.  The interaction between these domains is vitally important to the speed with which our societies move towards normative gender equality.

Universities could do more to make gender equality a core component of curricula.  Using case studies that showcase women in leadership roles, or working in non-traditional occupations, will help to change stereotyped ideals of women’s roles.  Developing programs that focus on increasing the numbers of women in postgraduate courses, and ensuring that across the life of a degree, students are taught to examine decision-making processes for unconscious biases will move more students further along the path to having an equality mindset than is otherwise possible.

Sexual harassment in our universities

Elizabeth Broderick’s 2017 report on the prevalence of sexual harassment on our university campuses should give everyone pause to think about how a gender unequal world gives tacit permission to men to behave in ways that are harassing and discriminatory towards women.  There is a clear and unequivocal link between gender inequality and sexual harassment and sexual assault.  There is also an established link between gender inequality and domestic violence which often travels via a history of sexual harassment/assault.  None of these things happens in isolation.

Diversity initiatives in universities

The good news is that most universities are now taking steps to address gender inequality in their workforces, among their students, and on their campuses.  Reporting to the WGEA has led universities to undertake an annual analysis of workforce data to investigate the representation of women at different levels, gender pay gaps, the adoption of flexible working practices and parental leave options, among a variety of other measures.  Pressure from trade unions during the enterprise bargaining cycle has seen universities adopt a number of policies that assist in the achievement of gender equality, particularly around flexible work and pay scaling.

Diversity and inclusion strategies and policies are now standard components of university governance, and most universities have at least one senior staff member devoted to embedding diversity and inclusion in the life of the institution. Universities are beginning to develop gender equality strategies, paying closer attention to the numbers of women in senior leadership roles, particularly in the academic workforce where the proportion of professors who are women is, on average, less than one third.

The Science Australia Gender Equality (SAGE) program

Introduced as a pilot in 2015, the SAGE program has been adopted by the vast majority of academic entities in Australia.  Developed out of the Athena SWAN program in the UK, the SAGE initiative rewards universities that make measurable progress towards increasing the numbers of women in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine) disciplines. Focused primarily on academic staff, the program also requires universities to address issues around intersectionality and the pipeline from higher degree research programs through to academic careers.

Over an initial period of 3 years in the SAGE program, universities set in train a number of investigative activities and then develop action plans to address gender inequality in their institutions.  At the end of the 3 years, universities submit an application detailing the work they have done and plan to do which is assessed by panels of experts, and if accepted, the university receives an institutional Bronze Award.  Once a university has received its institutional bronze, individual departments and the whole institution can go on to apply for silver and gold awards.  Each level of accreditation requires more complex activities which, over about 20 years, lead to systemic change in institutional norms that embed equality in the cultural fabric of each institution.

Universities as agents of social change

Our universities are uniquely placed to normalise gender equality in the minds of the hundreds of thousands of students they teach every year.  By visibly working to achieve gender equality in their workplaces, placing an emphasis on gender equality in teaching, and publicly advocating for gender equality, universities can have a major impact on the achievement of a gender equal society.

Original post published by The Agenda Agency: