How we're improving gender equity among business academics

Melbourne Business School (MBS) and the University of Melbourne's Faculty of Business and Economics (FBE) are launching a new strategy to improve gender balance and equity.

Under the strategy, the two institutions will recruit, develop, support and promote more women to senior academic and leadership positions.

"Society is crying out for leadership on gender equality, from our political, business and community leaders," MBS Dean, Internal, Caron Beaton-Wells said.

"Gender equity is essential to our integrity and credibility as a School that prides itself on educating the leaders of the future."

While the position of women in academia has improved in recent decades, FBE Deputy Dean (Faculty) Paul Jensen said much more needs to be done.

"Having been an academic at the University for almost 20 years, I have seen huge changes in terms of the support for women in the workplace. There’s a long way to go, but this fact serves as inspiration for continuing to drive this agenda in the future."

Women academics face persistent obstacles to advancing their academic and leadership careers, relative to their male counterparts, Professor Beaton-Wells said.

"Dismantling these barriers requires us to be vigilant and systematic at every stage of the academic career lifecycle, whether it be in relation to the unconscious bias that may affect recruitment processes, in the approach taken to promotion assessments or in the way in which we structure workloads and responsibilities for leadership positions."

Women currently occupy about a third of academic positions and a smaller proportion of academic leadership roles at the two organisations, but Professor Jensen said the joint Enhanced Gender Balance and Equity Amongst Academics strategy will do more than rebalance the books.

"We obviously want to see more women in leadership roles, but I think the types of change we want to see run much deeper than that. We really want to see a change in our culture and processes such that all women are appropriately supported and nurtured to achieve their professional goals."

FBE Associate Dean (Research) Professor Susan Ainsworth, expert in gender and workforce diversity said we need to critically reflect on what we assume it takes to be a successful academic and recognise this can take a variety of forms.

“You should not need to be superhuman, infallible and perfect at everything you do to progress in your academic career – otherwise most of us will feel like we’re failing most of the time, and who wants to feel like that, day in, day out?” she said.

“Addressing chronic overwork and overload would go some way to making academia a more inclusive proposition, with a higher quality of work-life, and not just for women.”

Professor Jensen said that ensuring academia remains a viable career choice for women is one of the challenges the strategy is designed to address.

"There are so many opportunities for women with PhDs that academia simply isn't a very attractive opportunity. We need to rethink how we become a more attractive place for women to work – which requires us to think deeply about gender pay gaps, work-life balance issues, direct and indirect support for women during child-rearing, and a whole host of other factors."

The first step in implementing the strategy is to create action plans around its main elements, which include creating a workplace where women are welcomed, valued, rewarded, respected and supported.

"We need to take the vision and turn it into a series of action items that will serve as the blueprint for gender equity," Professor Jensen said.

"That will require us to be bold and innovative, and to look around the world for inspiring examples of institutions that have made great strides in this domain."

Professor Beaton-Wells said her measure of success for the new plan will be when there is no longer a need for it.

"We will know there has been tangible, meaningful progress when there is no longer a need to have a strategy to address the issue. The most positive sign is the openness to having the dialogue and accepting that change needs to happen."