Sheil keen to break down gender barriers as QUT vice-chancellor

Margaret Sheil’s reputation as a gender warrior preceded her at the Queensland University of Technology. Only a few months after she began in the top job, women academics have already contacted her with an eye to moving to QUT. “I’ve been approached now by women from other places,” she says. “They’ve been saying, ‘we know QUT is good; we know it’s going to be better with you there, and we might be interested in joining you’. So that’s a positive.”

In her first speech as vice-chancellor earlier this year, Sheil made her substantial gender-equity ambitions clear. She wanted QUT to be the most gender-equitable university in Australia. “Start out big,” she remembers.

It is important, Sheil believes, for a new vice-chancellor to stake a claim early on. “It’s setting out those kinds of markers, so people understand they will be supported,” she says. “It’s hard, and university cultures take time to adjust, but it’s important to know that certainly I value that (gender equity) and my senior team does.”

The first female chemistry professor in Australia, appointed in the 2000 at Wollongong University, Sheil has been pushing for fairness and respect for women for most of her professional life.

“Through my entire career I’ve been someone who has, where I could — and I’ve had the opportunity to do that at both the national and institutional level — looked to remove barriers and focus on that issue,” she says. “So it’s been a longstanding interest and passion”.

Last year, Sheil was made an Officer of the Order of Australia for her “distinguished service to science and higher education as an academic and administrator, through significant contributions to the national research landscape and to performance standards”.

Personally, she says, she has encountered few gender barriers during her career. With a bachelor of science degree and a PhD in physical chemistry from the University of NSW, she was often the only woman in the lab, she remembers, but she encountered little hostility or sexism.

Later, as an academic at Wollongong University she found she was sought after rather than ignored. The young university was growing and opportunities were burgeoning.

Soon after Sheil arrived, the university introduced a policy of assigning two women to every selection committee. Since there were only four women academics in the fields of science or engineering, she spent a lot of time on selection committees.

“At the time I thought it was a burden, but in retrospect it’s made me very good at selecting people, which has helped me in my subsequent career,” she says.

The larger issue, she believes, is finding those pockets of academia where women have been systematically or culturally sidelined. In her role as vice-chancellor, and as one of the dozen or so women who have reached that level, she wants to ensure women get a fair shake across all disciplines, all the time.

Another impetus has been pushing for cultural diversity in the senior levels of academia, which is statistically dominated by Anglo-Celtics and Europeans, with all other groups, including indigenous Australians, left in the cold.

“For a long time, a big part of my career in the physical sciences meant finding more women,” she says. “Now, we have a big cultural diversity issue at the top of Australian universities.”

As provost at the University of Melbourne, beginning in 2012, she managed the institution’s 10 deans. She managed to overturn some crusted-on tradition by appointing a Briton of Indian heritage, Shitij Kapur, as dean of medicine. “One of my female colleagues said, ‘I never thought I’d actually prefer to appoint a man over a woman, but this is such a big change’,” she remembers. “And it was, particularly for that part of the university, which has so much tradition. But they haven’t had a female dean yet.”

Sheil has encountered pockets of resistance in her push for gender equity, and this resistance is typically found in the more scholarly disciplines, she says, rather than the professional fields.

“There are areas of arts faculties that have historically had dominant male cultures as well, it’s not just the sciences,” she says. “It varies between institutions. You’ll see different departments in different institutions have different cultures, often determined back in the day by whoever was the professor at the time.

“So it’s not solely discipline-specific, it’s more cultural.”

As boss of the Australian Research Council between 2007 and 2012, Sheil spent a lot of time visiting various universities and she generally made a point of asking about the history of the relevant departments. “The strong departments always had a really good leader at some point in their past, who appointed good people, and who mentored them and encouraged them,” she says. “But in the dog-eat-dog hard-nosed departments, often either women weren’t appointed or they walked away from the culture because they didn’t like it.”

QUT is unlikely to prove much of a gender challenge for Sheil. “QUT has a good morale,” she says. “There are three female deputy vice-chancellors in the senior team, plus a female registrar, so at the top we’re pretty well-represented.

“And there’s a good proportion of women among the deans.”

Meanwhile, the thorny questions that can bedevil international student enrolments in universities, prompting pointed questions about foreign interference and language proficiency, have not troubled QUT to a great extent. The university has a relatively low proportion of those lucrative international student enrolments, Sheil says, probably one of the lowest for an institution of its size and position.

Sheil and her husband were happy to move from Melbourne to Brisbane, where they have a house on the bay and an apartment in the city. “I’m from Sydney originally and I do like the warm weather and I like the water,” she says. “I can walk to work through the botanical gardens and it’s just lovely.”

Still, she misses her colleagues at the University of Melbourne, and her student activist daughter, who occasionally enlivened her life by protesting for a fossil-free divestment campaign near her office. “My daughter was outside the Raymond Priestley Building a few times with placards,” she remembers. “I came upstairs one day and said ‘How’s the protest?’ and someone replied, ‘They have a really cute dog.’ ”

The protesters’ canine mascot was, in fact, Sheil’s family dog.