Fay Gale, the first woman to head the Australian Vice Chancellors' Committee, is a high-flying academic with a string of prizes, papers and books to her credit. Vice chancellor of Western Australia's oldest and most prestigious university, she is only the third female to take charge of one of the country's 40 universities in almost 150 years.
Elected by her male colleagues, Professor Gale took up her appointment in January and immediately set about shaking off the AVCC's somewhat stuffy image, giving the committee a higher public and political profile, and establishing new, warmer relationships with the powerful academics' union.
Following Amanda Vanstone's appointment as federal education minister in the conservative government of prime minister John Howard, and with Carolyn Allport heading the National Tertiary Education Union, three women are now the most powerful figures in Australian higher education.
That puts Professor Gale, who entered one of the most exclusive men's clubs in Australia only five years ago and who is now its president, in an ideal position. For she has long been a highly vocal critic of the way the academic community is overwhelmingly male-dominated. As she notes, Australia does have positive discrimination in higher education - only it is men who enjoy the benefits.
"University appointment committees seem to disagree but there is no difference in intelligence based on gender," she declares. "Until we have 50 per cent female and male representation among academics, we will not have the highest quality staff."
A one-time teacher of geography, Professor Gale graduated with first-class honours from the University of Adelaide in 1954. She completed her PhD and postdoctoral research a decade later, took up lecturing in geography at Adelaide in 1966 and slowly climbed the academic pyramid there until she became pro vice chancellor and acting vice chancellor in 1988.
Two years later, she was appointed chief executive of the University of Western Australia and since then has been a powerful advocate for improving the position of women in higher education. But her efforts to compete with men on their terms has taken a heavy toll. She married when she was young and had two children but is now divorced.
"I made it to the top with great difficulty. It's been very tough," she says. "I would not expect other women to go through what I've been through. It's lonely and it's tough. It means family sacrifices but it also means you are under quite a lot of constant criticism - criticism that most male academics or vice chancellors do not have to endure."
Perhaps it was her toughness, and intelligence, tempered by personal warmth and empathy, that persuaded her colleagues on the AVCC to elect Professor Gale as their president. She was already a member of the executive and had chaired key subcommittees, including one concerned with research. But possibly the menalso realised it was time a woman had a chance to lead them.
The election, after 13 years of Labor of a conservative government, committed to slashing the foreign debt and balancing the annual budget, means the days of an expanding higher education are over. The last time Mr Howard was a member of a conservative administration, universities suffered seven years of no growth.
The result of Professor Gale's election has been startling. For the first time in more than a decade, the vice chancellors' committee and the academics' union began talking, rather than fighting. For the first time, the AVCC backed a salary claim by the union - while the union strongly endorsed the committee's demand before the election that the new government provide more financial assistance to universities.
Now the two groups - plus half a dozen other powerful higher education organisations, including the National Union of Students - have formed an alliance to try to protect the sector from cuts.
Professor Gale admits that these developments would have been inconceivable even a year ago. "At the end of the day, vice chancellors and academics have common goals and that has to do with quality education. While we might come at it from different sides, we have to work towards that common goal," she says.
Women dislike standing out-front, Professor Gale says. They tend to be team players in that they seek cooperation rather than competition. "Competition is not my style and I don't think it is most women's style." She says that although vice chancellors and academics had been set up as opponents it was time to go past that to what the real issues were. "I believe in negotiation and I want to change the adversarial nature of our relationship with the unions. Negotiating is more successful."
NTEU president Caroline Allport agrees. But she adds, "Professor Gale is herself an academic who is held in high regard. The fact that I've recently come from an academic position means both of us are closely acquainted with issues that affect the sector and the way academics have been expected to respond to the different dynamics of the unified system. So there is a base there to begin with."
Professor Gale says the AVCC now faces several challenges, including negotiating with the government over its planned budget cut due to be confirmed next month.
There is a now a strong possibility that universities will lose millions of dollars in government grants. Institutions will no longer be able to develop the kind of initiatives that are possible in a rapidly expanding sector and will be under even more pressure to generate their own income.
"The long-term goals are what we are worried about. Australia has a very good university system with a high international reputation. But we are very worried about maintaining that high standard," Professor Gale says. "It is very fragile if we are under financial pressure and we cannot pay our staff competitively to keep up the standard."