The pain of women and non-binary academics in Australian universities

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

Sexual harassment is on the rise for women in Australian academia.

Professor Leonie Rowan of Griffith University led an interdisciplinary research team and says the data has unearthed the widespread experience of everyday sexism in Australian universities – and why there is such a stubborn tendency to ignore it.

“We routinely dismiss and normalise the way sexism limits women’s careers, shuts down opportunities, and leads to serious problems in mental and physical health,” says Professor Rowan, whose research and teaching build on more than two decades of experience in education settings.

The recently published findings were the results of a survey of 420 Australian academics, women and non-binary people, with ninety per cent reporting being subject to workplace sexism.

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Professor Rowan told EducationDaily that a lack of awareness about gender stereotypes in universities takes away people’s career choices and limits their sense of belonging.

“Social rules about being, for example, a ‘good woman’ or ‘good mother’ and expectations about being a ‘good academic’ are often in conflict,” she says. “So, we often have to choose between the health of our relationships with our family, and the health of our CVs. And often that leads to people feeling silenced, and often they opt out of universities: at a time when we need all the people we can helping to solve national problems.”

Not an isolated result

As Director of the Griffith Institute for Educational Research, Professor Rowan has internationally recognised expertise in many areas of educational and social justice, including the health, well-being and longevity-effects of education, education and social risk, gender and leadership, and values-led research.

The research follows recent findings from a national survey of sexual harassment against university staff undertaken by the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU).  That data revealed 29 per cent had experienced sexual harassment. Five years ago, the figure was 19 per cent.

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Change is not happening fast enough – and most victims are women

The numbers show that things are not getting better – and that women represent the majority of the victims.

“We wanted to develop the depth of data available to universities, in order to help them change their response to gender bias and harassment,” says Professor Rowan.

“Sexual harassment does not arise spontaneously, from nowhere. More serious offenses have roots in the apparently innocuous, everyday forms of sexism that are routinely experienced, and which declare that gender-bias is, so to speak, part of the woodwork. We explicitly asked about those forms of sexism, as well as about experiences like sexual harassment.”

Professor Rowan says the data discovered was “depressing, and frightening”.

“Not only had 50 per cent of our respondents directly experienced sexual harassment in Australian universities – with the majority of harassers in these experiences being senior co-workers – the figures on everyday forms of sexism were also stark,” she says.

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“56 per cent of respondents report being reprimanded and spoken rudely to by a male colleague. 92 per cent feel ignored. 89 per cent were interrupted or talked over in meetings.”

Other findings from the survey showed:

  • 86 per cent have been treated with disrespect
  • 81 per cent endure the humiliation of being ‘put in their place’
  • 78 per cent downplay their accomplishments.

“To add to that, 93 per cent feel unheard,” Professor Rowan says.

“I want to just reflect on the significance of that last statistic, for a moment, because it really speaks to our experience of trying to get these findings some of the attention they clearly warrant.”

The research team’s attempts to share their findings with the world have been, Professor Rowan says, “met with silence as deafening as a roar”.

“Media outlets flock to sensational stories that are good for headlines. Accounts of individual women being raped and murdered, also generate coverage, and rightly cause outpourings of grief,” she says.

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“At the same time, it seems day-to-day stories of discrimination and harassment that are the enabling background for assaults on women are depressingly easy to ignore. But these are the patterns that lead to violence.”

The critical question Professor Rowan says she wants to ask is: “Does anyone actually care any more about the way sexism limits women’s careers, shuts down opportunities, and leads to serious problems in mental and physical health?”

Invisible or ignored?

She does acknowledge what she describes as “very large and shiny examples of how corporations invest in ‘gender equity’ and ‘workplace equity’ and ‘fairness for all'”, but says that, underneath those mandatory policies, “the day-to-day experiences of sexism can go largely ignored: people are numb to it”.

“It feels a bit like we are sitting on the true story no one wants to publish: the invisible pain of women and non-binary academics in Australia’s universities,” she says.

“Policy makers don’t respond. Newspaper editors don’t have ‘space’ for the topic. We’re asked to provide a more optimist spin – to try and find a ‘hook’ or an ‘angle’….because surely this data by itself, about everyday sexism can’t be very important!”

The reality that “even some of our colleagues have to stifle their yawns as they wonder when we’re going to move on from our boring litany of repetitive complaints” can feel overwhelming – and frustrating.

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“Aren’t we maybe overreacting just a little bit? After all: Australia LOVED the Matildas. How bad could things really be?”

But the findings, she says, tell a more difficult truth.

The reality of everyday sexism in Australian universities

“University experiences of everyday sexism damage women’s careers and lives, and here’s how bad it is:

  • 74 per cent report negative impact on careers
  • 67 per cent say it has impacted promotion
  • 67 per cent report negative financial consequences
  • 71 per cent say it has impacted on their self-esteem
  • 57 say it has impacted negatively on their health
  • 68 per cent say it has impacted negatively on mental health.”

Understanding the real pain behind the numbers

Professor Rowan says data can be used in lots of ways – and explains that, if you skim the surface, “you’ll see lots of women employed in universities, and increasing numbers at senior levels”.

“So, when you’re dealing with a lot of crises it’s tempting to say ‘okay – that’s looks fine’, and move on,” she told EducationDaily.

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“That’s a very human reaction. But if we scratch below the surface, we can find a different set of data which will say ‘okay, I’m here, but it’s painful, and often humiliating, and exhausting, and it hurts’. All we can do is keep providing the data and hope that people will take a minute out of their day to say ‘wow, that’s still happening?’ – and take it seriously.”

Although it’s common for people to say that some areas of academia are more ‘women-friendly’ than others, Professor Rowan says the stories shared with the research team clearly suggest that the problems are sector-wide.

“It happens to diverse women, every day, and they usually can’t get people to take it seriously because it seems so commonplace,” she told EducationDaily.

“And non-binary academics are in a much worse place: every risk faced by a woman is amplified for non-binary academics who are constantly under scrutiny.”

Voices of lived experience must be listened to

But Professor Rowan says it is the personal accounts of the respondents that should make it impossible for people academia leadership to ignore.

  • ‘It is a death by a thousand cuts, most of them hidden.  But definitely a death by a thousand judgements.’  
  • Raising questions puts a target on you, gets you labelled as a troublemaker, and causes a great deal of stress for you without making any changes. So if we want to stay in academia, we have to silently accept our subjugation.’
  • ‘They don’t want to sleep with you. And you are not going to cook for them. So they ignore you.’

“Those women work in workplaces that are reckoned to be among the safest in the world. There are many more quotes like that which I could share,” she says.

“There is no shortage of policy statements asserting commitments to social justice; there are initiatives to encourage women into non-traditional areas; there are communities to support Indigenous people; people with disabilities; members of our LGBTIQAP+ community. Flags of many colours, many countries, many peoples, many stories fly proudly over buildings. This is the Instagram-able version of equity. But for too many women it’s just a mirage.”

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]