After a recent study uncovered that only 31.5% of UNSW senior academic professors are female, female professors from around the globe let their voices on the matter be heard. Women in academic positions from U.S., Australia, and China all weigh in differently on how to deal with the lack of female representation in academic professor positions. Professor Chen from Xiamen University in China, recently stated, “I am not encouraging women to be leaders or academic professors,” While Amy Sheldon a professor at a major U.S university countered Chen’s assertion with, “I’m not angry because I’m not surprised.”
A study was released this past month on the UNSW website that revealed 31.5% of UNSW’s senior academics are women. Is this significant? According to catalyst.org, “There are now more women in senior levels of academia than ever before.” Nevertheless, women remain concentrated at the bottom of the academic hierarchy, while men still account for more than 80 percent of the most senior academics in Australian universities (2017).” UNSW is leading in terms of female representation in senior academic positions amongst other Australian universities, but they are still not close to equal. When this disparity was posed to Professor Janelle Wheat, the UNSW Gender Diversity Champion, she urged that it is “critical to establish having more women in senior positions.”
When comparing gender disparities in academic positions in Australia to other countries – specifically China and the United States (countries on opposite ends of the spectrum for female representation) – Australia was observed to be more similar to the United States while China varied in statistics and attitudes. In Australia and the United States, there is a similar trend of decreasing female representation as the level of prestige increases. For example, in the United States, “Women now hold 49 percent of total faculty positions but just 38 percent of tenured jobs (Flaherty 2016).” Similarly, in Australia as you work your way up the academic ladder the ratio of women decreases. “The majority of women in universities are still employed as general staff, while men are predominantly employed as academic staff (2017).” On the other end of the spectrum, China was revealed to have significantly less female representation in university professor positions than both the United States and Australia.
When this was brought to the attention of Professor Amy Sheldon at the University of Michigan in the United States she expressed, “I do think the U.S. is ahead of Australia and China / more progressive… Many cultures make it impossible for women to compete on a level playing field. It is getting better, but so much of culture and society needs to change for women to be truly equal in academia.” While U.S. professor Sheldon feels that other countries should be striving harder for equal gender representation in Academia, Chinese Professor Chen of Xiamen University does not share this desire:, “I am not encouraging women to be leaders or academic professors, as they will pay a higher price than men, and even sacrifice more.” Chinese Professor Xia of Beijing Hyogo Medical University agrees that the culture should not change, adding that, “The role of Chinese women in the family is essential, it will not change internally in a short time.” These female, Chinese professors accept and defend the role of women as the family caretaker.
This female family orientation ingrained into Chinese society is recognized as one of the major reasons for the gender gap in university professors. Professor Xia explains, “Chinese women have a higher balance of responsibilities in their family.” Professor Li of Fuzhou university details this career restriction further, “The education of children, the support of in-laws, and [ultimately] the consumption of physical strength are all the responsibility of women.” Although these Chinese professors all agree that women have to sacrifice family to be successful in careers, Professor Li also noted how there are increasingly more single, female Chinese professors that “don’t have family ties [to keep] them from success.”
Australian Professor Wheat agrees that family sacrifice is the cause of the gender gap in Academia – just not to the extreme level in China. She offers an additional potential family roadblock, “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.” American professor Sheldon agrees with previous notions that women have more pressure to take care of the family. She also adds that “ I think that society still encourages young girls and women to prioritize looks and being “nice” over competing to beat others to get into top programs and to create groundbreaking research.” She blames inherent societal norms, “Sexism is still rampant in the United States, and academia is not a safe haven. There is still a belief that men are better and smarter than women, even though it is not the case.” Chinese professor Chen thinks that it actually just might be the case. She plainly states that, “Men are more willing to be leaders.” Professor Li also opposes professor Sheldon’s sentiment by proposing male’s physical superiority: “Women’s mental health and physical condition are not as good as men’s after they’re 30 to 40 years old. It is challenging for a female professor to write an academic article after they’re 30 to 40 years old.”
Most Chinese professors interviewed don’t think anything needs to be done to narrow the divide in gender disparities in university professors (Chen emphasizes, “There is no need to emphasise gender equality”). Although, professor Guo (Fujian Women’s Federation Chairman) does think that policies to help guide women such as the recent “Women’s Development Program” in China will become helpful overtime. On the other hand, Professor Xia refutes that policies won’t make a difference, and that, “The most important thing to do is to change the role of women play in social ideology.”
When Australian Professor Wheat and American Professor Sheldon were asked about what should be done to change the gender disparities in university faculty, they both strongly recommended women mentors. American Professor Sheldon also addressed the familial boundary by suggesting more flexibility for family leave time.
Although Australian, American, and Chinese professors all come from different cultures and customs, they can all agree on one thing: It will be a long time before women academic professors are truly, equally represented.
Flaherty, CF 2016, ‘More Faculty Diversity, Not on Tenure Track’, Inside Higher Ed, accessed 2 April 2019, <https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/08/22/study-finds-gains-faculty-diversity-not-tenure-track>
2017, ‘Quick Take: Women in Academia’, Catalyst, accessed 2 April 2019, <https://www.catalyst.org/research/women-in-academia/>