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Universities’ pitiful response to gender inequality isn’t good enough

The chair of Universities New Zealand appears to think that training programmes alone will solve the gender imbalance in the academic workforce. But we need to stop trying to fix the women and focus on fixing the system, write Sandra Grey, Cat Pausé and Sarah Proctor-Thomson, representing the Tertiary Education Union.

One of the key messages to take from last month’s suffrage celebrations is that equality is achieved through changing the rules of the game, not the players.

In a recent letter from Education Minister Chris Hipkins university vice-chancellors were recently asked to explain their poor record at reducing gender inequality in our universities.

The minister’s letter was prompted by publication of 2017 data on the shape of the tertiary education sector workforce, which shows that women make up nearly 50% of the academic workforce but only 26% of the senior academic positions in universities.

Public institutions have a responsibility to be the champions of equality, in everything from pay to working conditions to gender, and the minister wanted the mostly male leaders of these institutions to explain what they are doing to reduce gender inequality.

Writing on behalf of his colleagues, chair of Universities New Zealand Stuart McCutcheon’s reply to the minister was disappointing to say the least.

Rather than acknowledging that the rules of the system are rigged against women, McCutcheon took the view that a training programme would be sufficient to reduce gender inequality in the tertiary education sector.

Hipkins had rightly expressed his concerns about the under-representation of women in senior academic roles, noting “the continuing gender inequality that is being signalled to students, who will be New Zealand’s future workforce and community leaders”.

McCutcheon would have been wise to acknowledge that he and his colleagues are, partially at least, complicit in this – by upholding the rules that so often prevent women from reaching the highest levels of the academic profession.

Instead, he said the solution lay in the Women in Leadership Programme run jointly by universities, as this will “help women to aspire and gain senior positions in universities”.

The idea that women just need more training, or that they need to find out how to play the rules of the game better, or learn to be more ‘like the men in their department’ if they want to reach the top is tiresome – and something all of us have heard.

As women working in tertiary education, we just don’t buy the myth lazily advanced by some of our institutional leaders.

Ministry of Education data, and the findings of the third state of the sector research commissioned by the Tertiary Education Union, is absolutely clear: gender inequality is caused by the system within which we work. It shows that our market-run tertiary education system, which is rife with individual and institutional competition, is more harmful to academic women than academic men – and more harmful to Māori and Pacific women than to Pākehā.

At the recent Women Studies Association conference in Wellington we shared the first glimpses of this latest state of the sector research.

We wanted the incredible women gathered at the conference to know that people like McCutcheon are wrong. It is not that women need to be more aspirational – we already have aspiration, passion, and commitment in bucket loads. It is that the market-driven rules of the game are rigged against us.

Half of all women surveyed in 2018 said they had been bullied at some time when at work. Academic women across the tertiary sector report stress levels higher than those of their male colleagues. And more women than men who responded to the state of the sector survey report they have experienced pressure from institutional leaders to publish specific types of material, despite academic freedom being legislated in New Zealand and giving academics high levels of autonomy.

With data like this, the conclusion is clear: the rules of the game are impacting more negatively on women. This is not a problem of individuals, it is systemic. There is clearly something gendered in the way a modern university is run.

Minister Hipkins reminded vice-chancellors that “universities have a legislative obligation to act in a manner consistent with the highest ethical standards.” This means examining all of the staff survey data, research projects, and ministry-held information in order to unpack how the rules are impacting on gender equity. Once we know this, then we need to change the rules.

For starters, we need to change how ‘success’ is measured. What we currently think of as a successful academic is laden with gender-biases. The idea that we simply need to ‘fix’ women so they fit the mould of these male-dominated measures is nonsense.

We’re not prepared to wait another 16 years to get gender equality in the top jobs in our institutions. And we are not prepared to have the myth perpetuated that women need more training to be successful in universities, given there is no doubt it’s the rules that are broken, not us.

Note: Researchers Sarah Proctor-Thomson, Charles Sedgwick, and Charles Crothers are currently preparing a report on the state of the tertiary education sector using responses from nearly 3,000 staff. A full report on the well-being of the tertiary education sector and its staff is due to be released later this year.

Dr Sandra Grey, national president of the Tertiary Education Union; Dr. Cat Pausé, senior lecturer at Massey University and TEU women’s vice president; Dr Sarah Proctor-Thomson, senior lecturer at Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology.

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