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Women and the Academic Profession

I am woman, hear me roar.

A conference last week on the future of the academic profession had, according to the associated website, 20 speakers, only 4 of whom were female.  I would have gone, but as I prepared to register and read through the line up, I became so irritated that I decided to vote with my feet.

The report that informed the conference (written by 6 men and no women) tells a bleak story about the academic profession’s attractiveness to women.

According to the report,  “a higher proportion of women than men have typically been employed as casuals, and a lower proportion have occupied tenured posts”.   This is bad news, right?

Er, maybe not.  The report then quotes from the ABS, saying, “the flexibility associated with such arrangements may suit their particular needs”.  Really?  When I worked as a sessional, it wasn’t very ‘flexible’.  I had to turn up at the same time every week and teach three classes in a row, whether my children were sick or not.  And if I didn’t turn up, I didn’t get paid. 

When I did get paid, it wasn’t very much.  In terms of meeting my ‘particular needs’, they included a financial need to pay the exorbitant childcare fees (even when the children were sick and didn’t go to the creche). My pay barely covered the fees and when I factored in travel costs, I might have been marginally better off financially if I’d stayed home or found different work.

Not only do female academics occupy the lower rungs of the academic ladder, they get paid less than their male counterparts.

As Andrew Crook reported in Crikey in August this year, a ‘leading’ university was recently denied a place on a Federal Government equal opportunity list designed to promote the advancement of women because it paid female staff too little. (

The University was “was stripped of its status” as a member of the Employer of Choice for Women list after it failed to meet prescribed pay equity measures.

As Crook explains, pay equity is the difference between salaries for women and men at equivalent occupational levels within an institution. Under official Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency guidelines, the gender differential in similar jobs must be lower than 17.2 per cent.  This University’s is higher than that.

I used to work at the university in question but I changed universities (and when I moved, I got a very big pay rise).  The university in question the same university that held the conference with the 80% male speaker line up last week and a 100% male report authorship.  It’s the same university that removed my name from a report I co-authored until I sought advice from a lawyer and then complained to a senior male in the university.  He passed the matter onto a less senior woman, but we resolved it.  (Leave it to the girls.)

I was discussing all of this with a female colleague last week and she confessed that she had recently sent “a rant” to the same university about the lack of female speakers in a public seminar series but that she had not signed her missive.  When I asked why she wanted to remain anonymous, she said, “Men are powerful in universities and I might want a job there one day”.

I hope not.  There is a line of argument that suggests that if you can’t beat ‘em, you should join ‘em.  But in the case of the academic profession, if you’re a woman, I’d suggest instead joining a university that demonstrably supports women, and not by offering them ‘flexible’ casual work.

But as universities that demonstrably support women are a bit thin on the ground (my own a notable exception), I wouldn’t blame any woman who went outside the academic profession in search of a better deal.  If we are serious about the future of the academic profession, we need to get serious about women in academia.

And maybe some more of us need to roar a bit as well. 

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