Gender segregated work and women’s rights: A history of Aboriginal oppression (part 1)

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On 2 September, the Women’s Policy Action Tank presented Putting Women at the Centre: A Policy Forum. We were delighted to have Celeste Liddle (@Utopiana), public commentator, blogger (Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist), Arrernte woman, Unionist, and recent inductee onto the Victorian Honour Roll of Women as one of our keynote speakers. Here we present part 1 of her talk, in which she shares her personal experiences at university, how those compare with the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders more generally, and how educational disadvantage accrues from a very young age for Indigenous Australians. Part 2 is available here.

I’d like to acknowledge that these lands have never been ceded and the treaty or sovereign agreement is yet to be negotiated on them, and until that’s done this country will never grow up to be a collaborative nation.

I also would like to take the opportunity to identify myself as a proud Arrernte woman whose traditional lands are around Alice Springs. I’ve lived in Melbourne 25 years so I like it here, but I was born in Ngunnawal Country in Canberra, so I’ve got a big spread of ties with this land and I’m proud of them. I’m known publicly for my commentary career, which started out quite by accident 5 years ago – and I say by accident because I never had any intention of becoming a public commentator; I thought naming my blog Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist would be a surefire way of avoiding interest by most people. That I was published in Fairfax a mere six weeks later came as a shock to me and at the time I put it down to fluke. That I’m still published 5 years later and have a Facebook page with a 28,000 followers is again an unintended consequence. I’ve spent most of my life being told I’m too opinionated and idealistic, and now for some reason folks wish to pay me for those exact attributes.

Celeste Liddle shares her insights on the multiple barriers Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women face to obtain a tertiary degree.   Photo credit CAAMA.

Celeste Liddle shares her insights on the multiple barriers Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women face to obtain a tertiary degree.  Photo credit CAAMA.

But rather than talking about that I’d rather begin by talking about my actual job because most just assume that the commentary is what I do. I’m the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Organiser for the National Tertiary Education Union and I have been in this role now for 6 ½ years. This was not an intended career path for me either, but at 39 years old I am starting to realise that life is full of the unintended and sometimes just going with it is the best thing you can do. I’m in a politically charged environment full of progressive thinkers obsessed with gaining knowledge, and it has fueled me incredibly.

The university experience: a personal story

I didn’t set out to be a unionist. In 1997, when I first went to university straight out of high school, I was a science student who had charted a geology major for herself.  About halfway through second year I realised I was not a science student at all, so I changed to an Arts degree with a major in theatre and drama. I eventually graduated with a first class honours degree and had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with it.

The best clues to draw on when it came to a career path that I had were my experiences as a university student. I was a regular at the Indigenous Support Centre and was told that the year that I entered university I was one of only 17 Aboriginal students across the state of Victoria to go straight from high school to university.

There was a regular cohort of students who hung around the Indigenous Centre, most of them mature-age students, and it was they who looked out for me when I was there, and encouraged me to continue with my studies. This was vital support, particularly when I changed degrees but also when there was a massive tragic event on campus which shook me to the core. I nearly left uni then but thanks to their support I managed to continue on.

I wasn’t eligible for ABSTUDY for most of my studies, regardless of what people had told me about Aboriginal people ‘getting everything’. This was because, despite being the eldest of four, my parents earned just above the financial threshold set by the government at the time, so I was a self-supporting student.  I also lived on campus, and was only able to do so through an accommodation scholarship dedicated to Indigenous students. For my first year of study I was eating bread for every meal because I worked at Baker’s Delight and was earning $8 an hour. I got a better job for the subsequent years of university, working in a department store – Daimaru – and this made supporting myself through university a little easier.

Long story short, when I finally graduated with that honours degree I was well aware that had it not been for the support I received I would not have made it through university. If I hadn’t had supportive peers, the Indigenous Centre which also supplied access to computers and printing facilities, a scholarship and lecturers who inspired me, I would not be where I am today and I would not be one of the minority of Aboriginal people with an honours degree. So when handing in my thesis, I applied for a job at another university supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students through the system and I was successful in gaining it.

Tertiary Life for Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Students and Workers

The problem I realised when I started working in the higher education sector was that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff often had the exact same issues within the university that the students had. Often they would be called upon to be spokespeople for their campuses, or be arguing with their faculties for recognition of their knowledge, or [not receiving] respect in the workplace. There was always an assumption that indigenous knowledge was secondary, and that our qualifications had been gained on some sort of concessional basis.

When you are in an elitist knowledge institution which prides itself on the notion of the Western canon and Eurocentric sources, gaining recognition for the place of other ways of knowing, such as the ancient systems that have been tied into this landscape for millennia, is really difficult. It was for those reasons I ended up becoming a union activist on campus.

That both sides of politics has cut funding to higher education over the years has not helped one iota. Casualisation of staff has increased and more and more staff, mostly women, have been employed on fixed-term contracts due to a need to seek out funding for any of their research.

Let me give you a picture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander engagement in higher education at this point in time. We currently make up about 1% of staffing across the sector and have done so for several years. In addition to this, of those Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff in the universities, ⅔ of these are women. This mirrors our Indigenous student body. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have been entering tertiary studies at a rate twice that of our men for at least the last decade.  Our students are more likely to be older than the average age, coming in as mature age students, often with dependents and families that they need to look after.

When you consider both the student and the staff cohorts for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on campus, we are only a third of the way in reaching parity with both of these; there is a lot of work to do. To return to the staffing contingent, it has continually struck me that while Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women make up ⅔ of the Indigenous employment within the university, most of the top-level positions within the sector are held by men. This mirrors, to a large extent, the mainstream employment record as well. While higher education is female dominated, it is not a feminised industry.  The low Indigenous employment rates in the sector are due to an environment of white supremacy in the academy which we are still trying to tackle.

Yet of the staff who are there, the patriarchal power structures make advancement prohibiting to Aboriginal women – and indeed all women. As such most of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women academics are stuck at the highest increment of the second-lowest level, and when it comes to the general staff positions we see a cluster of Aboriginal women on the middle placement scales stuck at their highest increment as well and not moving.  Whereas most of the higher level positions, despite the fact that they only make up one third of our staffing complement, are the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men.

What needs to be done

Now that I’ve gotten all that out of the way, what do I believe this states about barriers to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people when it comes to gaining qualifications and therefore having the capacity to participate economically? For me it highlights the following:

  1. Despite 50 years of engagement with higher education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including many many studies into how to make higher education more equitable, universities remain hostile environments for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and staff.
  2. One of the most effective ways to increase the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student cohorts would be to increase the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staffing cohorts, as the numbers have long paralleled each other.  Yet universities have been slow to act on this for a number of reasons. Due to the relatively low number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who hold university qualifications, universities face competition with other, better-paying industries.
  3. As is continuously shown in the Closing the Gap report, there is still a deficit in the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students not only completing year 12 but actually reaching the benchmark for numeracy and literacy in the early years of their schooling.

This shows that the disadvantages are embedded much earlier in the education of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. Hence we do see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women dominate when it comes to entering tertiary education, albeit at numbers way below parity levels. They are more likely to finish year 12, and less likely to be pushed towards the trades than our men are. Pursuing tertiary studies when someone qualifies for mature-age entry is often just a means to an end – gaining qualification in order to pursue employment opportunities or advance in a career from the absolute lowest rungs.

This post is part of the Women's Policy Action Tank initiative to analyse government policy using a gendered lens. View our other policy analysis pieces here.