This International Women’s Day, I was asked to speak at a lunch being organised by the Tertiary Education Union, as a student representative. After a classic moment of inferiority-complex – I recommended another speaker I thought would be better – the organisers insisted that I would be a sound fit, and I sat down to write and research.
The lunch was a powerhouse of women’s voices – Greens Senator Larissa Waters, Professor Liz Mackinlay, and indigenous scholar and stand-up comedian Emily McCool. And me.
The discussion covered the challenges facing women in the University workforce, casualisation of the workforce, sexual politics, and women in power.
The following is a tidied version of my speech, with some links to the sites where I got various statistics and ideas.
I’d like to acknowledge the tradition owners of the land that UQ sits on, the Jaggera and Turrabul people. I’d also like to thank the NTEU for organizing this event, and thanks for having me along.
I’m currently a PhD student at here at UQ, looking at the links between gender, climate change and adaptation in Bangladesh, so I wanted to try to draw some connections on the theme of parity, across Australia and Bangladesh, and offer some reflections on the kind of progress, that UQ is modelling for the rest of the world, and also thinking about what tools we have available to up, to create change, not only in terms of gender parity, but parity in terms of ethnicity, sexuality, ability, socio-economic background, and the intersections between these.
I wanted to talk first about – parity, or something close to it, in tertiary education. We know that women are doing exceptionally well in tertiary education, 58 per cent of Australia’s university graduates are women, At UQ last year, 55 per cent of students were women, women have been better represented for at least the last 20 years, and women are better represented in all Faculties, except the Faculty of Engineering, Architecture and IT, where 25 per cent of students are women. The numbers are at their highest ever, for engineering, but we still see a persistent gap.
But overall, 58 per cent of graduates are women, and this extra 8 per cent is really interesting. Where have these women come from?
Firstly, girls are doing better in high school, What we do know is that women in tertiary education tend to be better represented among those students that have been supported in equity efforts by universities – so students taking up income-contingent loans, among indigenous students, students from rural and isolated, mature-aged students and low socioeconomic status students.
So it is possible that this extra 8 per cent of women are those from marginalised backgrounds that have historically not been represented at university, and have faced structural barriers to be here.
And so despite these impressive gains in tertiary education, we see that the feminisation of poverty and disadvantage is still a thing, and overall, inequality in Australia in terms of wealth is rising.
These statistics less likely to apply to the Group of Eight (an alliance of Australian sandstone universities), which have lower levels of low SES participation, rural and regional universities have done most of this work, and in not contributing more in the efforts, UQ and the other Group of Eight universities are contributing to rising inequality.
I mentioned before disparities in disciplines. In sociology, and in the social sciences more broadly, where I have been learning and teaching, women students are well represented, 68 per cent across the faculty, and I’m surrounded by other women doing their PhDs, some of whom are set to become the most educated person in the history of their families.
This of course, shifts in nature after graduation – we see fewer women in the paid workforce than men, despite these high levels of education. I have seen the challenge that women can face in finishing their PhDs, while trying to break into the workforce. I think the challenges of having families certainly explains some of this.
I recently read Annabelle Crabb’s “The Wife Drought”, where she argues that we not only need to be getting women into the workforce, into senior positions, and decision-making roles, we need men to start to occupy new spheres, new roles, to start to smooth out the curb.
I think a similar perspective could be applied to the gender disparities we see across study disciplines at universities – STEM fields, engineering, technology, science – not only how do we get the women in, but how do we get the men into other things.
In the same way that we know that as women have entered the workforce, gendered roles around reproductive and domestic work have endured, so needing men need to help more with housework and child care, why shouldn’t we also be expecting more men to take up roles in education, nursing, administration, these roles that typically fall to women, to create the kind of gender diversity that can break down gendered expectations placed on women, as well as the expectations places on men. This is just an idea, I’d be keen to hear your thoughts on this – what kind of tools do we have available to us, to create gender parity?
I wanted to offer Bangladesh as an example, and I’m speaking as a privileged outsider – Bangladesh has persistent elements of gender inequality, gender based violence, I’ve been looking at how the entrenched nature of gender roles can leave women vulnerable to climate change, but Bangladesh also has a strong civil society, an autonomous women’s movement, a huge NGO sector, and there have been significant gains on the past 40 years for women and women’s rights and access to services.
In terms of gender parity, Bangladesh sits at 68 on the World Economic Forum Index, so behind Australia at 24, but still at about the middle of the pack.
In primary schools, girls in Bangladesh now far outnumber boys, due to a very effective stipend scheme, although these numbers drops off in secondary and tertiary education.
In terms of political empowerment, Bangladesh sits at 10 on the WEF Index, with a long-term quota system in the parliament, with current and past Prime Ministers are both women, as is the opposition leader, and a number of ministers are women, putting Bangladesh way ahead of Australia, which sits at 53 in terms of political empowerment. The system in Bangladesh is not perfect, by any means, but there is now culture in which women’s presence at these high levels is to some extent normalized, with precedent that we in Australia are still looking to build.
We see this disparity in leadership reproduced here at UQ. I am this year involved with the Academic Board, and anyone who has ever been in the Senate Room (where the Academic Board meets) would know the feeling of the weight of gender disparity in that space – a dish shaped room, surrounded by this gallery of oil paintings, the faces of the Vice Chancellors of days gone by, all old men.
Student representation in university governance is already very low – just 7 students each year, across the academic board and the senate, out of 30,000 of us, and 17,000 women – with just two women this year, which is similar to other years. And we all know too well the challenges that women leaders face in the public sphere, and persistent disparities that we see in politics and other major forums.
So what tools do we have available to us?
There is a piece of research that I was reading last week by two US academics, Mala Htun and Laurel Weldon, who argue that in countries where there is progressive policy around gender based violence, the key to this has been autonomous feminist movements. They argue that feminist mobilization in civil society accounts for variation in policy development, as opposed to leftist parties, or women in power, or national wealth. So for the good ideas that we have, we need a feminist movement to make this change happen, and we know that these movements can be effective.
Here at UQ, we have the Women’s Collective, within the student union, that to my mind, had helped to create a space on campus where feminism is now flourishing, and in the 10 years that I have been around UQ, this is a significant change – the willingness among the student body to discuss feminism and for people, both men and women, to describe themselves as feminists.
The UQ Student Union, as a student movement, has also been active in whole range of other areas related to equity and social justice.
The UQ Union last year became the first student union in Australia to have a dedicated Abilities Officer, and has also been running a carers support group, which is an important women’s issue, close to my heart. Women take on a disproportionate burden in terms of care, both caring for children, and caring for family members, parents, partners who might be disabled or unwell. While there is no data on the number of students who are carers, we can assume from this that there is are a number of women students who are carers. And the enduring disadvantage that women students can face is an important issue for the university and the union, particularly that challenges faced at the intersections, if you are a carer, or a trans women, or indigenous or a single parent, and so on.
There has also been strong student support for the “Let Them Stay” movement, a movement that has specific gendered issues embedded in it, issues around women’s safety, and the NTEU were very active here as well.
So in terms of gender parity, Bangladesh’s quota system might indeed be an idea that we need to see here, in parliament, or in universities – Yassmin Abdel-Magied was here last week and she was talking about how she supports quota schemes, she was talking about the engineering sector, because we just don’t have time to wait for gender disparities to work themselves out.
I think this too is a powerful sentiment – we don’t have time to wait and so we, as the feminist movement, need to be using every tool at our disposal, to have women represented across every discipline, and every corridor of power, and every gallery of oil paintings.
- Eleanor Ramsay on the gender balance at Australian Universities – theconversation.com/there-are-fewer-males-at-university-so-should-they-be-an-equity-group-46319
- Stephen Parker on equity at Universities – theconversation.com/how-universities-make-inequality-worse-55155
- World Economic Forum Gender Parity Index – reports.weforum.org/global-gender-gap-report-2015/rankings/
- S Laurel Weldon & Mala Htun on the influence of the feminist movement for progressive policy on gender based violence – www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13552074.2013.802158?journalCode=cgde20#.Vv9_mcfBQtw
- Annabelle Crabb’s ‘The Wife Drought’ – www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2014/november/1414760400/anne-manne/wife-and-times