Great progress, but gaps remain

Professor Margaret Gardner has been watching women’s progress in academia for many decades. These days, as vice-chancellor of Monash University and chair of Universities Australia, she can push hard for gender parity in her own institution and influence the whole of Australia’s tertiary education sector.

In terms of equality of the sexes, Australian universities are in general doing more and doing it better than other institutions across the nation, both state and private. Socially-conscious university leaders like Gardner have gender parity programs in place, there is redress for grievances and the notion of equality is taken very seriously. Yet seeking true and overarching equality of the sexes remains a work in progress, and there are still dark patches of sexism and nay-saying.

“When I went to university, as an undergraduate, I took what were some of the first subjects then offered in what would now be called gender studies as part of my degree,” Gardner says.

“They were electives, none of that was part of the core, of course. I had an interest as an undergraduate, and I did my Phd looking at issues about women, in part, so I continued that interest. So I came with an academic interest in what is the sort of inequality I’m seeing here and how it is manifesting.”

After Gardner was awarded an honours degree in economics, and a doctorate – both from Sydney University, followed by a long stint in the US as a Fulbright post-doctoral fellow, she spent the next several decades rising through the ranks of Australian universities, and along the way getting married and having children.

Her husband, Glyn Davis, is the vice-chancellor of Melbourne University, and Gardner had their two children while she was working at another university.

She came to Monash after a long and successful stint as vice-chancellor of RMIT, and through all the universities where she has worked, in various states, Gardner has seen gender disparities. Even now, at Monash, regarded as one of the champions of equal opportunity, and one of the few universities in Australia with a woman vice-chancellor, men dominate in the professorial ranks and across the science, technology, engineering and maths disciplines.

The numbers of women in senior ranks have certainly increased over the decades, but the gaps remain, and the disparity is rooted in the way men and women are assessed for advancement.

Women have children, and care for them, and these years spent away from research take a huge toll. Academics are assessed on their research, Gardner says, on their papers and their citations, and there is no magic template to compensate for the holes that having babies can leave.

“In Australia and around the world, people are promoted not on the basis of capability but on actual outcome and output,” she explains. “You accumulate that over time. So if you have career breaks, and we do try and take account of those, or you are slowed down in your career because you have caring responsibilities, you’ve taken a break, and that happens more frequently to women than to men, that will slow down your progression. And that’s what affects a proportion of women in professorial positions.”

Yet Gardner, who had two children while working as an academic, still rose to the pinnacle of the vice-chancellorship of one of Australia’s most prestigious universities. Perhaps because the holes in her career were tiny, almost unnoticeable.

“I worked full-time, the whole time,” she says. “I think I had six weeks off either side of my first child, and less either side of my second child. They were choices I made, but you might ask the question about what might have happened if I wasn’t working full-time for as long as I was”.

Would you have been VC of Monash University? “Interesting question”, she says. “Moot point”.

Gardner points out that there was an excellent childcare centre on campus at the university where she was working when she had children, and it also offered after-school care programs.

“I say this to women in the university,” Gardner explains. “I made my choices at my time and I have wonderful children, and they are brilliant and balanced and lovely, and so I’m very fortunate, but I do not expect that people should, or could, make the decision that I made”.

Like many other universities, Monash has a series of policies to help women overcome gender disadvantage. If women take time off to have children, they are given help to rebuild their research career. There are parental leave policies that allow fathers, as well as mothers, to take substantial time off for full-time parenting. There is support for academics who are parents and need to travel domestically or internationally for research.

And, Gardner says, because gender inequity is baked into the conditioning of both men and women, the entire senior executive team at Monash, and many of the STEM academics, have taken training to combat unconscious gender bias.

“We are doing much, much better than we were, and Australia does pretty well compared to many other countries, but it’s not something we can say we’ve fixed. We have to keep working on it”.