To give female students an equal educational experience, we need to promote women

Female representation in leadership roles is crucial to show young women that success can be theirs too. Catherine Branson explains how her life and career have helped her succeed in a male-dominated world

Catherine Branson's avatar
26 Feb 2024
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A female student holding a notebook stands in a library

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The University of Adelaide

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I assumed the position of chancellor at the University of Adelaide in 2020, in the aftermath of a critical leadership failure, both at the senior management and governance level. My first role was to address the crisis promptly and take measures to ensure, so far as possible, that nothing similar could happen again. The first step towards this outcome was ensuring that every member of the university council and all members of the senior management team understood that they were respected and that their views mattered. It was essential that the two teams worked cooperatively together in the best interest of the university.

Now into my third term as chancellor, I am committed to creating a legacy of a well-functioning university, attracting the best students and the best talent from around the world because it’s recognised as a place that values diversity; where women as well as men, people of colour, people who are gender diverse, with different abilities, of different faiths, are all welcomed and encouraged to perform at their very best and for the betterment of our broader society. While this may seem a daunting task, I want to use the lessons of the past to help inform the future.

I see feminism as the most significant social revolution of the past millennia and, interestingly, it’s been achieved largely without violence. University campuses powerfully illustrate the impact of this revolution over the past 150 years. Campuses were once populated overwhelmingly by men; now, we are educating a higher proportion of women than men. The educational experience we offer our female students must allow them not only to envisage a future that is no less fulfilling than their male colleagues, but to actualise that in their lives.

See it to be it

The educational value of enhanced female representation in leadership roles is crucial – it enables and encourages young women to understand that leadership is within their grasp, and not the preserve of men. This is not only equitable, but also avoids the wasting of talent.

Women will not have an equal educational experience while they can see leadership positions disproportionately filled by men. In my view, one of the greatest impediments to the appointment of women to senior leadership roles is the tendency to confuse confidence with competence. No doubt this is reinforced by the internalised image that so many of us carry of what a successful leader looks like – that is, a suit-wearing, “heroic” and charismatic man.

How I developed resilience from a young age

I was raised on a farm near Hallett in the mid-north of South Australia. I think my parents welcomed the birth of a daughter – they already had a son, and would later have another – but it soon became clear that some life choices available to my brothers would not be open to me. From my very early days, it was made plain that when I reached a certain age, I could no longer expect to make my home on that property.

Of course, being thought of as “second-class” had its downsides, but it helped me to develop independence and resilience, later vital for my careers. As I grew older, this same feeling underpinned my commitment to human rights and equal opportunity.

I was disabused fairly early of the idea that simply being male gave you special capacities that females didn’t have. My experience showed that wasn’t so. Most women I know who have brothers would probably think the same.

At 35, I became crown solicitor of South Australia and chief executive officer of the Attorney-General’s Department, becoming the first woman to be permanent head of a government department in South Australia (and the first female crown solicitor in Australia). I served for more than 14 years as a judge of the Federal Court of Australia and as president of the Australian Human Rights Commission for four years.

I believe what helped me to overcome discrimination early in my career was that I was in a profession with recognised qualifications for entry and pretty good objective measures for success. It was probably my pride that pushed me to do what I could to perform as well as, if not better than, anyone else. At a time when female barristers were rare, I enjoyed the benefit of being noticed, and I found that client reluctance to be represented by a woman soon dissipated. My capacity to speak up with confidence got stronger as I developed greater professional competence and recognition. I also enjoyed the professional, if not the personal, advantage during my mid-career years of having neither a husband nor children so I could devote as much time to my work as I wanted.

My vision for the future of the University of Adelaide in particular, and universities in general, is clear:

  • campuses should be safe and supportive for all who spend time on them
  • the talents and ambitions of women and men should be equally recognised and nurtured
  • female leaders are visible and effective
  • appropriate measures are in place to address the social inequalities that continue to impact the ability of girls and women to provide the leadership of which they are capable.

Catherine Branson is chancellor of the University of Adelaide.

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See our International Women’s Day spotlight for more advice and resources from women leaders in higher education.


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