Marcia Devlin: beating sexism with attitude

Tips from the top of a sector that insists on preserving its male dominance offered in Australian consultant’s guide

May 13, 2021
Consultant and adjunct professor Marcia Devlin, author of Beating the Odds: A Practical Guide to Navigating Sexism in Australian Universities.

When Marcia Devlin apprehensively fronted her first executive meeting at a new university, her colleagues, all of them male, were friendly. Then one called out from behind. “Hey, Marcia,” he said, indicating cupcakes on the table, “did you bake these?”

“I could have ignored him, feigning deafness,” writes Professor Devlin, a former deputy vice-chancellor at three Victorian universities. “I could have laughed. I could have given him one of my ‘looks’. I could have blushed, lowered my head, teared up, told him not to be ridiculous.”

As it happens, Professor Devlin turned slowly to confront the man. She suppressed her anger, looked him in the eye and deconstructed his joke. “Are you asking me that question because women bake, and I’m the only woman here?”

For female academics caught off guard by “these sorts of moments”, there is no correct response. Professor Devlin says women should equip themselves with “an overall attitude” so that they are as ready as they can be to navigate a world of unconscious, offhand and “pernicious” bias.

In her forthcoming book, Beating the Odds: A Practical Guide to Navigating Sexism in Australian Universities, Professor Devlin quotes familiar statistics of gender imbalance at the upper reaches of academia. But her main goal, in a deliberately unacademic tome, is to share tricks of the trade gleaned from a three-decade academic career.

Now a consultant, Professor Devlin said her advice applies equally to professional staff. “I couldn’t say this sort of stuff before, because people would have assumed I was talking about where I worked,” she told Times Higher Education. “I’m talking about all universities. We’ve been hoping things will improve for a long time, and it’s not working.”

She said that while her tips would be old hat to many senior women, those early in their careers needed a “wake-up” call. “If you don’t withdraw labour from structures that don’t lead to advancement, you’ll end up stuck in low-level jobs. By all means help others, but help yourself more.”

The book explains that female university staff are expected to be “nice and nurturing”, striking an impossible balance between gravitas and humility and treasuring “womanly things” rarely associated with traditional notions of leadership.

Women should recognise such expectations without delivering on them, said Professor Devlin, whose recipe for success also involves seeking support and preparing “a secret strategy” that encompasses personal and family life as well as career goals.

Her pragmatic approach draws from battles on the home front. “Try not doing the institutional housework you normally do to ‘oil the wheels’ – note-taking in a team meeting, action item follow-ups, reminders to colleagues who you have correctly predicted will forget important things, check-ins with everyone to monitor their well-being, wiping the bench in the shared kitchen, organising morning teas and so on. Try dialling down the quality of the work housework that must be done to five, six or seven out of 10.”

Other tips include judicious flattery (“if you give a senior person a compliment, you are in a rare minority”), behaving unpredictably to throw male detractors “off their games”, using available minutes rather than waiting for uninterrupted hours (“these long blocks rarely come between housework and other womanly expectations”), and applying for higher-level jobs elsewhere (“you can either accept or ask your current university to match the offer – many men do this; not so many women”).

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