Tertiary education is a haven of activity for women, as both staff and students. But equity issues still remain.
Of the nearly 1.1 million students at university 57% are women, making up 53% of all tertiary students in Australia. Women have already made the government’s target for 40% of people holding a bachelor’s degree, with men still in the mid-30% range.
While the above stats reference a 2008 study on such gender breakdowns, there’s been little evidence to indicate how wide the gap currently is. The tertiary education sector has a distinct focus on the gender balance with students, but more research needs to be done to give female academics a practical pathway to leadership.
The ABS outlines that holding any post-school qualification for women makes them much more likely to hold full-time work. However, men in the same position are consistently employed more than women. Fifty three percent of women with a bachelor’s degree are employed full-time, compared with 80% of men. The trend continues with 62% of women with postgraduate degrees working full-time, contrasted by 81% of men.
Women are also failing to engage with subjects such as engineering (2% of women) and being over-represented in education/teaching, 5% of men compared to 14% of women.
While there is a relatively equitable spread of women and men as staff in tertiary institutions, women are failing to make the jump. With 42% of academics being female, there is a lack of female professors. Approximately, only 21% of professors are women, with some universities last recording the number as being as low as only 10%. The number of female vice-chancellors is also low, with only nine ever being appointed since 1987.
With an announcement Tuesday from Sydney University regarding the appointment of their second female Chancellor, Chief Executive Women’s president Belinda Hutchinson, we should be able to expect greater emphasis on workplace flexibility and opportunity for women to access leadership given the growth in study options in that past decade. Tertiary education can hold classes online and at night, while research can largely be done in an individual’s own time.
However, the industry doesn’t have a culture of confident women. Many women in higher education are cautious about their prospects. Some studies point to few women ever considering being a professor a realistic option.
What does this mean for students? Quite a lot. We know that that the idea of you “can’t be what you can’t see” is real for women and girls, but on the face of it the industry suggests only parts of the sector is for women. With high amounts of women at junior to mid-level positions in academia and minimal numbers reaching senior-management, all students suffer.
While tertiary education does have a slow career-trajectory, it lacks incentives for women to aim for leadership and promotions or to engage with alternative disciplines.
The sector is limited if only men are considered the leaders of teaching and research, when a large proportion of women stuck in the middle.