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Degrees of separation: Closing gender gaps in higher ed


In 1883, Bella Guerin became the first woman in Australia to graduate with a degree after being allowed to enrol in 1880. She obtained her arts degree 30 years after the University of Melbourne opened its doors to male students. It would take longer for law faculties to enrol women around the country.

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that women were hired as lecturers. One of the first was Gladys Hope Marks, who was appointed as a lecturer in French at the University of Sydney in 1921.The first woman in Australia to be made a professor was Dorothy Hill, a geologist and palaeontologist. She studied at the University of Queensland and was made a professor there in 1959.

Professor Rubinsztein-Dunlop was the first woman to become a physics professor at an Australian university, the University of Queensland, in 2000 and served as head of the school of physics there for nine years. In the same year, Margaret Shiel became the first female chemistry professor in Australia at the University of Wollongong. She has been vice-chancellor of Queensland University of Technology since 2018.

Despite women having to fight to be admitted to university, they now make up more than half of higher education students. Latest federal government statistics show that in 2022, women made up 57 per cent of the student population. Women have also made advances in gaining employment in universities and now make up more than half of university employees. However, this is largely because women hold many more non-academics roles, which often pay less than an academic’s salary.

In 2022, women made up 64,081 of full-time equivalent university employees and men 46,808. There were 41,283 women employees with non-academic roles and 21,987 men. When the government figures are further analysed, there are more male academics than female academics. More on this later.

While women’s participation in university life has substantially increased over the decades, they still face a gender pay gap. The difference between what men and women are paid at universities is revealed in the latest Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) report published earlier this year. For the first time since the agency started publishing pay data 10 years ago, it has released the names of companies and the differences in what they pay male and female employees.

WGEA data shows that the average total remuneration gender pay gap for all organisations is 21.7 per cent, which translates to women earning on average $26,393 less than men a year. WGEA’s recommended pay gap target is within the 5 per cent range.


'There is a strong push to get men to take on more domestic and unpaid caring responsibilities, but society and employers often still send a very clear message: it is risky to take time off work — just look at the cost to the career of your female partner, or sister, or colleague.'


WGEA doesn’t compare like-for-like jobs performed by women and men, but the overall gender pay gap in companies. Laws have been in place for decades that stipulate women and men must be paid the same for the same job.

The gender pay gap arises because of several complex reasons. One reason is that men tend to have more senior positions across industries. The Australia Institute Centre for Future Work 2023 report The times they aren’t a-changin (enough) shows that Australian women are overrepresented in lower paid and casual jobs and underrepresented in senior positions such as management and science positions. Women also do much more unpaid work hours than men. 2022 OECD data shows that Australian women spend 81 per cent more time doing unpaid domestic and care work than men. This hampers women’s ability to clinch promotions and therefore higher paying jobs and the security of having enough superannuation to retire on.

KPMG analysis shows the gender superannuation gap can be anywhere between 22 percent and 35 percent. The median superannuation balance for men aged 60–64 years is $204,107 whereas for women in the same age group it is $146,900, a gap of 28 percent.

The Australia Institute Centre for Future Work report reveals that the reason for the big difference in women’s and men’s superannuation is the gender pay gap. The research released on International Women’s Day last year shows that women earn less than $1.01million over their working lives and retire with $136,000 less in superannuation. The figures are based on median income data.

Overall, universities fare better than many organisations in the WGEA data, but most have not hit the WGEA target of within the 5 per cent range.

Of all universities in Australia, Central Queensland University has the highest total remuneration pay gap at 21 per cent. The WGEA data includes academic and non-academic employees. Sixty-five per cent of the university’s workforce is made up of women and 35 per cent men.

The Australian Catholic University has the second highest with a total remuneration pay gap of 14.5 per cent, despite women dominating its population. Sixty-nine per cent of ACU’s workforce is made up of women and 31 per cent men. ACU tops the country with female students, with females making up 75 per cent of its student population according to 2022 government data. This is unsurprising given ACU’s teaching and nursing degrees which overwhelmingly attract females.

Other universities are doing well to close the gender pay gap. The University of NSW, at 1.4 per cent, does best in the country. Edith Cowan University’s gender pay gap is the lowest of all Western Australian universities at 3.7 per cent. The University of Melbourne has the lowest pay gap in Victoria.

When these figures are further unpacked, it becomes clear that male academics are earning more than women because there are more men in the upper echelons of academia and more women in casual positions. This reflects data from WGEA and the Australia Institute Centre for Future Work for all work sectors.

Latest higher education government data shows there are 8875 full-time equivalent men in positions above senior lecturer level. This includes associate professors and professors. There are 5271 women. At ACU, 56 per cent of academics at above senior level are men compared with 44 per cent for women.

The gender equity shift at senior levels has been slow as evidenced by the fact that the first female professors in physics and chemistry were only appointed just over 20 years ago.

The gender imbalance at the senior level is also reflected in the Australian Research Council discovery grants data. Of the 6471 chief investigators considered for research projects starting this year, 4350 were male, 2084 were female, two were indeterminate/intersex and 35 chose not to specify their gender.

The proportion of female researchers commencing discovery projects this year is 34 per cent. It is an inequity the ARC is aware of. In its 2021 Gender Equity Statement, the ARC acknowledges the ‘underrepresentation of women in the Australian research sector’.

There are many reasons for this imbalance in academic and senior research positions, which once again reflects what is happening in other industries. Women’s careers are often interrupted because of childbirth, child rearing, caring for elderly relatives and domestic work. This hampers women’s ability, for example, to do research and write journal articles. The ‘publish or perish’ mantra dominates the academic landscape, particularly when academics and researchers are applying for academic positions, promotions and grants.

There are women without children who are still not landing senior positions as vice-chancellors, department heads and professors. Dr Marcia Devlin, who held senior positions at Victoria University and is now CEO of the Victorian Institute of Education and Leadership, suggests that university culture may privilege men’s careers over women’s. In a 2021 Conversation article, Dr Devlin said university decision-makers might ‘well favour men’.

‘After many years in executive and governance leadership, I continue to observe decision-makers often thinking of men first, or only of men, when searching for suitable leadership candidates,’ she wrote.

In her book, Beating the odds: A practical guide to navigating sexism in Australian universities, Dr Devlin writes that sexism is ‘stubbornly’ entrenched in universities. The experiences of women in universities and the data show that sexism has a detrimental effect on women’s careers and wellbeing, she writes. Dr Devlin reveals some of the stories of women confronted with sexism in universities.

Despite universities having mentoring schemes for women and the ARC taking into consideration interruptions to women’s careers when assessing grants, more needs to be done. The Australia Institute Centre for Future Work 2023 report recommends more paid parental leave for both parents. But if this is to succeed, men need to be encouraged to take the leave.  WGEA data shows that 63 per cent of employers offer parental leave but only 14 per cent of all paid primary parental leave is taken by men.

WGEA CEO Mary Wooldridge told a National Press Club of Australia audience this year that stereotypes about work had to shift so men would feel comfortable about taking parental leave.

‘There is a strong push to get men to take on more domestic and unpaid caring responsibilities, but society and employers often still send a very clear message: it is risky to take time off work — just look at the cost to the career of your female partner, or sister, or colleague,’ she said.

Ms Wooldridge added that employers had to encourage men to take parental leave and ‘create a culture where it is expected and celebrated’.

When Gladys Hope Marks was appointed an acting professor in 1929, The Sydney Morning Herald gleefully announced that she ‘had made a record in the history of the university life in Sydney as acting professor in charge of a department (French)’. There are still records for women to make.





Dr Erica Cervini is a freelance journalist and sessional academic.

Main image: Chris Johnston illustration  

Topic tags: Erica Cervini, Gender, Universities, Staff, Students, Academics



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