AUSTRALIAN universities are under fire for discriminating against women and minority groups.
The president of the New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Board, Chris Puplick, said that universities and technical colleges are regularly brought before human rights and equal opportunity commissions.
Complaints were usually about sex discrimination but sometimes included harassment and race discrimination. For these kinds of problems to appear 20 years after anti-discrimination legislation showed the attitude of some universities was "absolutely awful".
Far from being "citadels of enlightenment", the universities were "refuges of unreconstructed sexist behaviour and practices".
Many women still had difficulties when they applied for maternity leave or promotion. Others had to endure inappropriate comments about their capabilities as scholars and scientists.
Women working in universities had complained to the NSW Equal Opportunity Tribunal of being subject to unwanted sexual comments, persistent offensive jokes, sexual innuendoes and physical touching from males. Most of the complaints were about men and reflected the relative powerlessness of women and other minorities in the workplace, Mr Puplick said.
Speaking at an education law conference in Sydney, Mr Puplick said that while more than half of undergraduates and a third of academic staff were female, only 17 per cent of senior decision-makers were women.
The Australian Vice Chancellors' Committee strongly rejected the charges. Acting president, Geoff Wilson, said it was quite wrong to accuse all universities on the basis of isolated reports.
"Mr Puplick did not - and could not - make a case for sector-wide indifference or neglect," Professor Wilson said. "In fact, universities have historically been at the forefront of breaking down barriers for women, and other minority groups, in both study and employment."
Only 13 per cent of academics at the senior lecturer level and above are female, only 26 of the nation's 263 deans are women, and of the 38 vice chancellors, six are women (although their numbers have tripled this year).
Women are over-represented at lower academic levels. More than half of all women academics are untenured.
One woman vice chancellor agreed that sex discrimination did exist and that women had to learn "not to carry chips on their shoulders" because it was counter-productive. "Universities are complex cultural systems and until you crack the code you are excluded," she said.