Gender equity: glacial change

Higher education institutions may pride themselves on a mission for social change but progress on gender equity in university workplaces has been glacial, according to a La Trobe University researcher. 

‘Across Australia and New Zealand women occupy only a relatively small percentage of senior management positions. Despite decades of affirmative action strategies in the sector Indigenous women leaders are even scarcer,’ said Professor Tanya Fitzgerald, Associate Dean (Research) in La Trobe’s Education Faculty.

‘Women, particularly Indigenous women, often feel like outsiders in predominantly white, male university workplace cultures. This is one reason why there’s a lack of women in senior management positions.’

A recent report in the Times Higher Education found that, of the 18,500 professors in the UK, only 85 are black and a mere 17 of these are black women. Professor Fitzgerald said similar patterns are evident in Australia and New Zealand.

‘Even when compared with other high-skill industries which are heavily dominated by male leaders, such as medicine, law and architecture, women are less likely to be seen in senior management positions. 

‘Paradoxically, although many universities host research centres and acclaim the intellectual contribution of academics engaged in research in the areas of gender, work and organisations, they appear to turn a blind eye to how this applies in their own workplaces.

‘The rate of change in prestigious research-intensive universities is particularly slow. In Australia, there's only one woman Vice-Chancellor appointed to a Group of Eight university. In England, there’s currently one woman VC of the 24 universities in the Russell Group. In New Zealand, there have only been two women VCs.’ 

Women Leaders in Higher Education: Shattering the Myths

Professor Fitzgerald has had extensive leadership experience in Australian, English and New Zealand universities and recently published a book, Women Leaders in Higher Education: Shattering the Myths

‘The book’s based on my research exploring the experiences and perceptions of 55 women at Australian and New Zealand universities. It uncovers the significant contribution of women as senior leaders. I examine why women seek to be leaders, how they enact leadership and the perceptions of their female colleagues. 

‘All who were interviewed were very aware of their privileged position at the apex of the academic hierarchy and many consider themselves to have paved the way for other women to follow.

‘In much the same way that Virginia Woolf once spoke about women having “a room of one’s own”, those who come to occupy their own quiet leadership spaces can use them to bring about change. Their power lies in the collective force of women to agitate for change and their refusal to accept the status quo.’


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