'I'm waiting for the professor?' Stereotypes still need busting for women in STEM

‘I’m waiting for the professor?’ Stereotypes still need busting for women in STEM

Professor Cobie Rudd still encounters people who believe she must be a man due to the “professor” in her title. 

Women in STEM have come a long way, but there are stereotypes to be busted, she writes in this piece adapted from her recent Catalysing Change speech. 

Has the needle shifted on gender equality in STEM in the past decade? Yes, in many respects there’s been a noticeable change for the better.

We have an unprecedented focus on reducing the gender pay gap and campaigns to get more girls into STEM. We have also placed a spotlight on organisational cultures to redress inequities and help women advance in their chosen careers and progress into decision making roles.

But the dial hasn’t moved enough in terms of busting stereotypes — by any means. Let me tell you a story to illustrate the point.

In 2016, I was being collected by a driver to attend an awards ceremony, at which I was a finalist. The car arrived, the driver opened the back-seat door and I got in. After a while, I was concerned as the driver never returned.

When I saw him pacing up and down the footpath, I wound down the window and asked if he was alright. He said, “Yes, I’m just waiting for the Professor”. I explained I was “the Professor”. He replied, “I was expecting your husband”. The driver proceeded to drive me to the event while I delivered gender inequality and unconscious bias training 101…. enroute.

Over the years, I have shared this anecdote at a range of public events to illustrate how our culture and stereotypes lag behind progress. When I shared the story with a journalist, who thought it was terrific, she then proceeded to ask me at the end of the interview what title she should give me … Ms. or Mrs.? “Professor!” I replied.

The story has been picked up by media and social media world-wide and nicknamed ‘Waiting for the Professor’. I have gone to many gender equality events and conference and heard similar stories from others.

Now, some four years later, ‘I’m back’ … with a sequel.

I recently flew to Adelaide for the Australian Academy of Science national gender equality conference. As I descended down the escalator at the airport, I saw the driver holding a sign with “Rudd” on it. I caught his eye and signalled that it was me he was picking up.

The drive turned his side to me and continued holding the sign looking at the escalator. I then walked up to him and said “that’s me” pointing to the sign. He replied, “yeah sure, you’re Kevin Rudd”. The driver, again, purposely turned his side/ back to me and continued to hold the sign facing the escalator. I was with a male colleague, who at this point was gobsmacked.

I went to the baggage claim area to collect my suitcase. I watched the driver all this time, who continued to hold the sign up looking at the escalator. I wheeled my suitcase towards him and approached him and said again “You are here for me; I’m Professor Rudd”.

He replied: “I was waiting for a man”.

I went with the driver to the car and the whole journey to the hotel was just as disgraceful. He harangued me (including when I was on the phone on work calls), saying the problem was with my Christian name – “see (pointing to the manifesto) – Cobie is a man’s name, we all just know of Kobe Bryant”…. “I was expecting a man” … “it’s your fault, you didn’t approach me properly”.

When we got to the hotel, he said “you’re never going to forgive me, are you”. Probably not.

It is true that Australian women hold fewer academic positions than men at, or above, the level of senior lecturer. We’ve seen slow increases at the professorial level with the proportion of female professors increasing from 24.3% in 2012 to 27.3% in 2016 (Universities Australia). It’s not that impressive really, at only just above one quarter.

As we approach International Women’s Day #IWD2020 with the theme #EachforEqual, I think it’s worth highlighting what that means: it’s everybody’s business. Everybody has a role to play across sectors and industries. It’s not just about women. Developing a more inclusive culture means men have a clear and critical role to play. Addressing their unconscious bias and traditional stereotyping are game changers.

As for me, I’m also “waiting for the Professor”….as in I am waiting for a societal response where a new generation of women progress at the same rate or faster than their male counterparts and take their equal place among the highest ranks of our higher education institutions.

Professor Cobie Rudd is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Strategic Partnerships) and Vice-President at Edith Cowan University.

Professor Rudd holds the Edith Cowan University (ECU) portfolio for institutional accreditation in gender equality.  As part of this, she led the University to achieving Bronze accreditation in the inaugural pilot of the Athena SWAN Charter in Australia, as one of the first 11 universities nationally to achieve this award. As well, in 2019, ECU has been ranked 6th in the world for gender equality in the Times Higher Education University Impact Rankings, and in 2020 has been awarded the Workplace Gender Equality Agency Citation as an Employer of Choice for Gender Equality for the fourth successive year; the only university in WA to be recognised with this Citation.

Professor Rudd has over 30 years of experience across sectors and has led a diverse range of capacity-building and research projects on a national scale, and also held senior policy research and advisory roles for both state and commonwealth governments. She is a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors and has served on over 13 boards of governance.

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