Australia’s gender equity push ‘to be maintained during crisis’

Universities pledge that women will not be disproportionately affected by the Covid-19 wrecking ball

June 9, 2020
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Australian universities have vowed not to let Covid-19 undo their gender equity gains, committing to maintain diversity initiatives and report the pandemic’s impact on women.

A joint sector position statement commits signatories to ensure that women have equal representation on the committees overseeing universities’ response to the crisis. Institutions will formally monitor and report on the impacts that crisis management decisions have on gender equity and on “compounding intersectional factors” – such as ethnicity or sexuality – that could also affect women’s careers.

The document also obliges signatories to sustain women’s share of professor, associate professor and senior management positions at current levels and to maintain participation in equity programmes such as Australia’s Athena SWAN initiative.

The statement was prepared by an advisory group of university equity representatives. It comes after a May report warned that the pandemic risked exacerbating inequalities in research and academia, reversing years of progress.

The report found that female university employees were more likely than their male counterparts to lose their jobs during the crisis, while those who remained would shoulder a disproportionate share of  teaching loads.

This would add to pre-existing inequalities in academic workloads. The report also cited evidence that women were submitting fewer journal papers since the pandemic began, while men were publishing more.

The University of Sydney said it had been the first institution to sign the statement, with another 10 so far following suit. They include Griffith, La Trobe, Macquarie, Murdoch, UNSW Sydney, Western Sydney and the University of Technology Sydney.

The Academy of Science and Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering are also signatories, along with several equity groups.

Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence said women comprised half of his university’s senior executives and almost half of the senate. “We do not want to lose momentum,” he said.

“There are many competing priorities at a time like this, but we’re sincere in our ongoing ambitions…and will continue to strive for equitable representation of women at all levels and in all roles across our institution.”

Sydney’s senior manager of diversity, leadership and inclusion, Sarah Abbott, said universities had taken a “brave move” in committing to maintain women’s participation levels amid the turmoil of the pandemic. But she was confident that Sydney could fulfil the pledge.

Sydney has established a “stringent diversity dashboard” to “apply a gender lens” to coronavirus-related decisions, she said. “We can tailor our decisions accordingly, so that none of our diverse communities are more greatly impacted than others.”

Ms Abbott said Sydney would monitor the pandemic’s impacts on female employment every day, and issue monthly reports. She said the commitment to maintain female representation only applied to senior academics, because parity had already been achieved at other levels.

Some 33 per cent of Sydney’s professors and 44 per cent of associate professors were women, she said, along with 52 per cent of senior managers.

Ms Abbott said that when it came to indigenous employment, Sydney would go further than guarding against disproportionate impacts. The university would apply a “very strict lens” to any job cut proposals affecting Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander staff, she said. “You’d need a very strong case to reduce an indigenous role.”

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