For women in the academy the fight for equity and justice has only just begun

Associate Professor Gemma Carey, Research Director. Centre for Social Impact. University of New South Wales. 

After taking part in the Australia Day protests in Canberra, I found myself in the ethically questionable position of attending an Australia day BBQ thrown by a friend of a friend. Yeah I know, January was a while ago. I've been digesting this personal reflection for a while and whether I wanted to speak out. Again... again... on this issue.



This BBQ was composed entirely of academics, mostly PhD students and postdocs from an elite Australian University. It was, some might say, the epitome of the ‘latte sipping leftie’ crowd – the one routinely accused of being too concerned with political correctness, ethically sourced food and climate change. And yet, there in the corner sat a young man in a ‘wife beater’ singlet.

‘Wifebeaters’ is a term used to describe those iconic blue Australian singlets, while casually referencing domestic violence. I remember when it was acceptable to ‘ironically’ wear a wife beater singlet to Australia day parties, somewhere back in the early 2000s – a distant memory. And yet in Canberra, the most left wing city in Australia – part of a Territory that has almost exclusively voted in Labor governments, with the highest ‘yes’ vote to same sex marriage – here was this man at an Australia Day BBQ wearing a wife beater singlet.

Later that evening I found myself in conversation with Mr Wife Beater Singlet, debating whether women in the academy face structural disadvantages to career progression, or whether it was merely ‘lifestyle choices’, like having children. As though these two things are not intrinsically intertwined.

Women, I recall him saying, were well represented in the academy. They dominate some disciplinary areas. Quotas and other affirmative action policies just mean we don’t select the best candidates.

Men make up 55% of the academic workforce. But it’s how that workforce is structured that tells the real story.  75% of women hold parttime appointments in Universities. Women are clustered at the lower end of the academic ranks – the majority of low-level positions are filled by women, a statistic that has shifted less than 5% in over 20 years.  79% of Australian Research Council grants go to men, despite the (former) CEO stating it is “important that all research funding bodies [take] affirmative action to ensure that female researchers were not only able to commence a career, but ensure they were able to return to it following breaks in their academic work”.


Meanwhile, gender quotas have been found to boost overall performance in a range of employment sectors.

As a female Associate Professor, just 15% of my counterparts are women. If we could break that down by age I’d be surprised if, at 34, I represent more than a handful of Associate Professors in the country. At the point of graduating my PhD my cohort was 50-50. Now, 4 years later, I struggle to think of the women who have stayed in academia. Those who have subsist on short-term contracts and part-time work. I am one of the very few women to have both stayed in the University sector and successfully climbed the academic ranks.

Since becoming part of the Professoriate I have spent a lot of timing reflecting on how I embody the role, given my minority status. Some elements of this I find straight forward – I provide the best employment conditions and mentoring to women around me that I can. I speak openly and publicly about the challenges women in academic roles face – the ‘manel’ phenomena, the disproportionate number of grants that go to men, and the now infamous ‘Daversity problem’ whereby 84% of National Health and Medical Research Council grants go to men who work solely in male teams (and you’re most likely to win a grant if your name is Dave).

Though I have come to firmly agree with Audre Lorde’s words “what is most important...must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.” Still, I cannot right every wrong, I do not have the opportunity to speak out at every injustice I see.

Sometimes I must make do with a knowing nod across the room, an indignant tweet.

I wrestle on a daily basis with the questions ‘When do you stand and fight? When do you walk away?’ Say nothing of the emotion labour tied up in making those decisions. I’ve learnt to navigate the physical jolt that is the standard response when people learn what my position is.  All of this represents additional work my male counterparts do not have to do.

It’s easy to dismiss the views of one early career academic, but Mr Wife Beater Singlet represents our future academic workforce. A future workforce where a white man feels comfortable to stand in front of a senior female academic in a wifebeater singlet and tell her that we don’t need systemic action to address gender inequity in Australian universities.

I am reminded again that in the moments when I choose not to speak, my silence does not protect me. And it does little to help those who come after me.

And so better late than never, I offer a small reflection on my Australia Day experience