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V-c: pandemic ‘existential threat’ to gender equality in academia

Written by: Ellie Bothwell
Published on: 4 Nov 2020

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The Covid-19 pandemic poses an “existential threat” to women in academia, according to a former vice-chancellor who warned that the sector could lose “most of the equity gains of the past decade” if it did not step up to tackle the issue.

Jane den Hollander, who was vice-chancellor of Australia’s Deakin University from 2010 to 2019 and interim vice-chancellor of the University of Western Australia earlier this year, said her “great fear, as research funding evaporates and governments appear indifferent to the implications of women disappearing from the workforce”, was that “incremental and pleasing advances in academic women’s employment and promotion will disappear”.

Delivering the annual lecture of Aarhus University’s Centre for Higher Education Futures, Professor den Hollander highlighted the fact that women were disproportionately in more junior and insecure jobs in academia and, therefore, more at risk of redundancy, and were also more heavily burdened with childcare and homeschooling during the pandemic.

“It is likely now that the sector will emerge…having lost most of the equity gains of the past decade or two,” she said.

She said Australian universities were particularly vulnerable to moving backwards on equality because alongside these global pandemic-related trends, the government had implemented tuition fee reforms that have substantially increased the cost of humanities degrees.

“Humanities is where many women, including our Indigenous women, start their education. Hugely increased course fees are likely to deter some women from participating in the education that feeds our system and populates the employment levels all the way up to the top, where there are those rarities who do make it: women professors, women rectors, women vice-chancellors,” she said.

While Professor den Hollander acknowledged that gender inequality in academia was not new, she said the issue now “looks like an existential threat if we do not pay attention and speak up”.

“Academic women, most particularly those aspiring to go up the ladder, who do not yet have tenure, where there is no institutional plan focused on their particular recruitment and development, will be disproportionately affected in this crisis and will leave our sector. This is not good for them, it is not good for men, and it is certainly not good for our society and collective future,” she said.

“We must not lose the incremental gains of the last decades in women’s visibility and contribution. The recent Nobels – with such a pleasing number of brilliant women being acknowledged – cannot be lost,” she added.

Professor den Hollander said that institutions must ensure they have a gender-balanced workforce and that the workloads of those staff are balanced. They also, she continued, must stop thinking about childcare as a women’s issue and must reconsider “demoralising and corrosive” casual and short-term contracts, which disproportionately affect women.

On the latter she said: “It looks uglier than it ever did and is causing consternation in our communities and mental health issues in our staff at all levels. Is it the right approach for our sector, in this new era?”