In Australia, the story of women’s progress in universities stretches back more than a century and a quarter.
Our country’s first university – The University of Sydney – was founded in 1850.
For the rest of that century, most Australian women did not yet have the vote – that milestone would be achieved in 1894 in South Australia.
But a full decade before that crucial democratic achievement, a young woman called Bella Guerin graduated with an arts degree from The University of Melbourne in 1883. Her mother had educated her at home.
It wasn’t until two years after she matriculated that the university agreed to admit its first three female students.
Bella was the first to graduate – and would go on to a career as a teacher and social rights campaigner.
Today, many of us knows the feeling of being the only woman in the room. But, happily, in Australia’s universities we are no longer the only woman.
There are many of us not only in classrooms and lecture halls and as lecturers and researchers – but also as leaders, executives, university vice-chancellors and governing council members:
- 56 per cent of all undergraduate students in Australia are women.
- 45 per cent of all academic staff are women.
- 11 of our 39 university vice-chancellors are women.
How did we make those gains at each level of our universities?
More students, more leaders
First, by building the numbers of women as students.
And once those numbers grew, it opened possibilities for women in postgraduate study, in research and teaching careers, and into the leadership positions.
The advancement of women in our universities has also been enabled by broader law.
Important pieces of legislation such as the sex discrimination and equal opportunity acts outlawed discrimination on gender and marital status.
In more recent years, entitlements such as paid parental leave have supported women and families in the workplace.
Culture, policies and practice
And universities themselves have thought about culture, policies and practice to encourage women to pursue leadership roles right through to the highest levels.
To assist this work, and speed these gains across the sector, the Universities Australia Executive Women’s group has developed a number of resources in recent years.
These include a sponsorship guide – to assist university leaders to actively foster opportunities and create leadership opportunities for women.
The aim is to have senior staff to actively help women to step into more senior roles.
We ask leaders what they can do to build the profile, share the stage, and create opportunities for talented women to move to the next level of leadership.
Another high-quality resource has been the development of recruitment guidelines to help fast-track the advancement of women in university executive appointments.
These help human resources teams, interview panels and supervisors think about barriers that may impede female applicants for senior roles.
A third initiative has been a video series, Mentors to Many, which features current university leaders sharing their advice on how to forge an executive career.
The benefits of a diverse higher education sector
So, why do we need to continue to make progress on women’s representation in universities?
Each year, corporate adviser Conrad Liveris compiles a report on women in leadership in Australian companies.
There are 11 female CEOs in Australia’s top 200 stock-exchange listed companies.
And there are more men named Andrew than the total number of women CEOs.
Yet research shows boards and leadership teams that are more diverse get better results.
A recent study of the largest US firms found that the link between board diversity and higher returns goes further than previously thought.
Specifically, the study found:
- more diverse companies are more likely to have greater profitability; and
- more likely to maintain that position, keeping other businesses at bay.
Gender equity is not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. There’s a clear business case for gender equality.
So we will seek further gains towards gender equality in our country.
This is an edited version of a speech by Universities Australia Chief Executive Catriona Jackson to the China Education Association for International Exchange in October 2019.