Skip to main content

What is needed to even the odds?

Author: Martin Betts | As seen in Campus Review

In higher education, we pride ourselves on being evidence-based decision-making entities. We promote our missions to serve our communities and to create a better world and better futures for all.

There is strong evidence that diversity drives better organisational outcomes. Robust and well-cited studies show that diversity contributes to better productivity, workplace engagement, collaboration, revenue, share value and profitability. Although we have no direct studies yet, we can confidently surmise that universities, as large organisations increasingly expected to operate as financially viable businesses, also benefit in all of these ways from diversity.

And our deep and central commitment to social justice and equity and transformation sets the higher education sector apart from many others. It is what attracts so many to fund, support, work in and study at our institutions.

Yet despite the strong evidence, well-known benefits and fit with our values, the data on how we are tracking in terms of gender and other diversity in the sector is ambiguous at best, and poor at worst. The odds are stacked against women, as well as against people from races other than white, against people with disabilities, and against people with particular sexual orientations, just to name just a few.

Many workplaces are working hard to close gaps and many have exemplars of outstanding progress in doing so. Often, such exemplars are driven by an individual leader. Professor Margaret Sheil, vice-chancellor of Queensland University of Technology, is one positive example.

Recently, Margaret gave a Clare Burton Memorial Lecture in Brisbane. Among other things, she discussed the concept of new indices for measuring staff performance based on their behaviours in creating good culture. She advocated the idea that alongside existing h-indices, which measure how much an individual had achieved alone, in competition, and most likely from a position of advantage, we might employ additional indices that measure behaviour consistent with diversity, equity and inclusion.

She is working on building an ‘m-index’ to measure how much academics have done to mentor and support others who are less advantageously placed. To measure to what extent, for example, they have added others to their grants to lift them, or shifted author orders on papers, recognising quiet achievers and team contributions. These are somewhat unsurprising ideas and developments from the former CEO of the ARC who was instrumental in creating fellowship categories to enable disadvantaged individuals and groups and in establishing ‘relative to opportunity’ principles that seem obvious now we all use them.

We can, and should, herald the vision and actions of individual leaders like Margaret Sheil. But, unfortunately, such visionary leadership is not as widespread as we might hope it to be. It is also possibly unfair to place the responsibility for change on one person’s shoulders.

We had a great HEDx podcast discussion together last week around Marcia’s new book, Beating the Odds: A practical guide to navigating sexism in Australian universities. The book outlines the data showing that, in Australia, three-quarters of the most senior university jobs are held by men. The data also show that when 15 Australian vice-chancellors left their roles in 2020, 11 of them were replaced by men. Furthermore, of the four female vice-chancellor appointments made to replace those departing in 2020, two of these women moved from one VC job to another, replaced by men in their former roles. Data also highlights we are yet to appoint our first vice-chancellor from Australia’s First Peoples.

In her book, Marcia points to the fact that women are often waiting for things to change for the better in terms of gender equity. She says in a culture where there are 86 per cent more male than female members of the professoriate across the country, women often tell her that the system should change, that the structural barriers should be removed, that HR should start a mentoring program, and/or that senior leaders or ‘the university’ should do something. Marcia says the issue is that, to date, these things that ‘should’ happen have not happened, or at least, not happened consistently or quickly enough. She suggests that while they wait, those who work in universities now also need to decide what they are going to do in the meantime.

Our discussion touched on some of the strategies she advocates for women, and enlightened men, to help overcome the confronting statistics that made Marcia’s rise to a DVC job in Australia so much more challenging and unlikely than Martin’s similar rise. We recommend the book be widely read by women and men at all levels of universities, including university councils. Our hope is for widespread behaviour change and, as a result, that the odds for women ‘making it’ in academic, professional and leadership roles improve quickly and radically.

Our hope is also for change in the other areas of inequity, including around race and ability, among others. Arguably, as seats of intellectual capacity globally, universities are well-placed to lead here. But do any of us know of a university anywhere in the world that stands out as streets ahead in having closed all relevant gaps and evened the odds for multiple disadvantaged groups? Do we know of a place that has reaped the benefits in performance, reputation and positioning for staff, student and partner recruitment and attraction in doing so?

Imagine what the first university in the world to do this would be like to work in, study at, or partner with. Imagine the culture it would drive, the high-quality student experience it would provide and how productive it would be in knowledge creation and dissemination.

Imagine the reputation it would gain. And then imagine if it were Australian.