Friday10.00 (2019) MDIA2003_19

Inside the issue of low ​percentage of female academic professors in Australia and China.

(intended for Newsworthy)

While the percentage of female academic professors appears to have increased in Australia and China, the number is still lower than 50%, and that raises some serious concerns about gender equality in universities.

By Xuewei Zheng

While Australia ranks 35thout of 200 countries on the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) gender gap analysis, which is still below countries like New Zealand and the Philippines. As one of the best anti-discrimination legislative frameworks in the world, Australia still lags when it comes to matters of gender equality. 

China also faces gender equality issues, as recent statistics shows that China fell again in the WEF’s global gender gap ranking, with Chinese women still lagging behind their male counterparts in terms of top corporate and political positions.

Recently, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Eldoret Professor Teresa Akenga and Dean of Science of the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Professor Emma Johnston have discussed the changing experiences of women in leadership, education and science at IGD (Institute for Global Development) event.

(IGD Lecture Series. photo: Xuewei Zheng)

“In Australian STEM areas, women often make up 50% of science degree students but only 17% of science leaders,” Professor Johnston said.

In a random vox-pop, most university students did not notice that the female representation amongst university professors was less than 50%.

“This surprises me. Women are still significantly underrepresented in this day and age. But I had never thought about that before you mentioned,” a UNSW student said.

The gender issue in Australian and Chinese universities

According to the UNSW website, in 2018 the percentage of senior female scholars was 31.5% which is likely to increase to 40% by 2025. 

Professor Johnston attributed the female academic professors is extremely low in STEM(Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), is because the “boys better than girls” stereotype starts from high school.

“It’s been decades since research unequivocally debunked the myth that boys are somehow more suited to STEM courses,” Professor Johnston said.

Data published by Peking University in 2017 shows that female academic professors accounted for 16.2% of the total number of professors, while female in intermediate and lower titles accounted for 54.4% of the total.

Mrs Guo, Fujian Women’s Federation Chairlady argues that the low percentage of female academic professors in China is related to China’s national conditions.

“Compared to 1949 when the nation was founded, the reforms of 1978 brought changes particularly in education.” 

Lack of confidence 

Lack of confidence is an essential reason for the low percentage of female academic professors in both countries. 

In the IGD talk, Professor Johnston weighed in on the issue, stating that there are less female academic professors because women still have less confidence in STEM, and “most girls think math can’t help secure jobs or enhance their studies in the future”.

Professor Akenga agreed to the saying.

“Sometimes we feel sorry for ourselves, but men don’t. We are not confident enough with the knowledge we have as women.”

“We need the training to enhance our leadership skills through development courses and mentoring to build confidence for ourselves.”  

This factor exists in China also. 

Professor Xiuqing Lin, Fujian Commerce University believes that social environment and experience are the reason that most of the Chinese family won’t provide an equally enabling environment to the girl.

“In some part of China, people only want boys, every family continues to have children until they have a boy. If they have a girl, they have another child,” she said. 

“Because women live in an unequal environment, they become self-limited from a young age. That is why most Chinese women feel inferior and are not confident enough.”

Family problem 

The family factor is the most representative of the gender problem in China. 

Professor Lin believes that family has restricted women.

“In China, it’s women’s responsibility to take care of their children and parents. Hence, after a woman goes into a marriage, most of them choose to return to the family and put less energy into their career. That’s why the number of female scholars is lower than the standard.” 

On the contrary, the family factor is not such a serious problem in Australia. 

Professor Janelle Wheat, UNSW Gender Diversity Champion, Deputy Dean of Science Associate Professor, argues that long term career break is a reason for the low percentage of female academic professors. 

“When women take a career break to care for their loved ones, their university life cycle is interrupted and requires a lot of effort to build their careers back up.”

Society’s pressure 

Society’s pressure is also a factor contributing to the gender issue in the two countries. 

“Social discrimination is still a serious issue in China. Women’s thought is formed under the pressure of public opinion. Especially for those women who are self-sufficient, they are influenced by society and family, rather than their natural journey,” Professor Lin said. 

Society’s pressure exists in Australian culture as well. 

Professor Johnston comments that in Australia universities, young women who have defied the STEM stereotypes also have an essential role to play as mentors or role models, as do senior women in professional positions. But saying like “girls just don’t have the same kind of aptitude as boys” still in the class. Breaking down the dominant stereotypes is a significant challenge that requires persistence and commitment. 

“There is no ‘one way’ to be a scientist or technologist. I am passionate about girls in STEM, because I understand the cost to society if we fail to make the STEM sector more diverse and inclusive, and STEM can offer women exciting careers,” Professor Johnston said.

New actions 

Professor Wheat listed some strategies that UNSW Gender Diversity Department intends to implement this year.

“The first strategy is mentorship. Mentors give women advices and help them to shape their careers,” she said. “The second one is networking and career opportunities. We are focusing on female returning from their career break, to make them feel that they can return to work instantly.” 

“The final strategy would be Q&A panels or different career journeys, and hopefully it will motivate women.”

While China still has cultural gaps with developed countries, new generations in China realise that the gender issue won’t be the barrier to their dreams. 

“In the 90s’ thoughts, if women are economically independent, they will not be bound by men. As a result, if women face unreasonable demands, they should refuse to obey,” Mrs Guo said.

Bringing passions for gender equality

“The social prejudice is still around in Australia. But everything is getting better,” Professor Wheat said.

“I think that Asian cultures still have been more male-dominated and they have prioritised males in ways. That’s a barrier that China will need to be overcome to achieve equal representation,” Professor Lin said.

Even though there are many barriers, both Chinese and Australian female professors remain optimistic about a future where gender equality will be a reality. 

Professor Wheat said it is critical to have women in senior academics because they can bring broad perspectives and diverse life experience in the university. 

“Not only because there are many women and men in this world, and that would be great to make sure we have different points of views that women can offer.”

“I am delighted to meet the 90s, even though I realised how many structural barriers still exist for women’s participation, but many of them believed that they achieved gender equality,” Chinese Professor Li said.

“I’d like to see women and men taking on non-traditional roles and non-traditional careers and balancing their family lives with their career opportunities,” Ms Liu, a master student in UNSW said.

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