Australia’s higher education sector is in transition. The pandemic has led to vast reductions in numbers of fee-paying international students, mass job losses across the country, and significant changes to the way in which our core businesses of teaching and research are undertaken.
In February, 2021, Universities Australia reported that Australian universities had lost an estimated $1.8 billion in revenue compared to 2019 and had shed at least 17,300 jobs in the same period. It is unclear whether that figure includes sessional staff not signed up for a subsequent period after the revenue hit started to bite, but I’d be confident not all of those precariously-employed folk were included in this figure. Universities Australia estimate that the sector will lose a further $2 billion in revenue in 2021. You don’t need to be a professor of mathematics to understand what that will mean for employment in the sector.
Employment losses have disproportionally affected women. While there are no analyses available for the Australian higher education sector specifically, broader analyses can help us predict the likelihood of this gendered effect in our sector. Collins and colleagues examined changes in working parents’ work hours during the pandemic, given increased school and day care closures and the concomitant increases in caregiving responsibilities for working parents. It will probably not surprise HERDSA Connect readers to hear that “…mothers with young children have reduced their work hours four to five times more than fathers. Consequently, the gender gap in work hours has grown by 20–50 per cent”.
In another example, in the tellingly titled “Early Signs Indicate That COVID-19 Is Exacerbating Gender Inequality in the Labor Force” Landivar and colleagues found that “…women, particularly mothers, have employment disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Mothers are more likely than fathers to exit the labor force and become unemployed”, suggesting that “…the COVID-19 crisis is already worsening existing gender inequality, with long-term implications for women’s employment.”
The Australian higher education sector desperately needs strong and stable leadership to ensure financial security for our universities so we can continue to provide outstanding education and undertake world-leading research. Study after study after study show the benefits to organisations of having women in senior leadership roles. However, the message doesn’t seem to be getting through to University Councils.
Since the beginning of 2020, 18 of the Australian sector’s 37 public universities’ vice-chancellors have announced their departure from their role. Of the 15 interim or permanent replacements made to date, 11 have been men and just four have been women. Of those four women, two moved from one vice-chancellor role to another and both were replaced by men in their previous roles.
Is it possible that in the quest for strength and stability in a crisis, University Councils charged with finding the next set of university leaders are influenced by unconscious bias and, possibly, sexism in their decision-making? Will the ongoing lack of gender diversity in university leadership help or hinder efforts to ensure women who work in universities are not additionally disadvantaged by the effects of the pandemic?
In an essay for the Brookings Institute in September 2020, former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard challenges us to think broadly as we work our way out of the COVID crisis. She asks whether “…2020 will be remembered as the year that a global recession disproportionately destroyed women’s jobs… [o]r is there a more positive vision of the future that we can seize through concerted advocacy and action?”
I’d like to think the latter could apply in the Australian higher education sector, which is home to some of the brightest minds and deepest thinkers in the country. No doubt governments, regulators and institutions should ‘do something’ about gender inequity in universities. While we wait, it might be useful to remember that change requires individual – as well as government, sector and institutional – commitment to progressive policy and action. In the meantime, what are you going to do to make a difference?
Collins, C, Landivar, LC, Ruppanner, L, Scarborough, WJ. COVID‐19 and the gender gap in work hours. Gender Work Organ. 2021; 28( S1): 549– 560. https://doi.org/10.1111/gwao.12506
Landivar LC, Ruppanner L, Scarborough WJ, Collins C. Early Signs Indicate That COVID-19 Is Exacerbating Gender Inequality in the Labor Force. Socius. August, 2020. doi:10.1177/2378023120947997
This article was first published in HERDSA Connect 43(2), Autumn, 2021.