Promoting equality?

Lily Matchett and Anna Hush explore the ways in which the USyd promotions policy disadvantages women

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A significant number of students reading this paper will go on to pursue careers in academia. It is common knowledge that academics are usually overworked and highly stressed, and that progressing up the ladder in the academic hierarchy is a very slow process. However, not many realise the bias against women that is entrenched in the University’s promotions policy. When this was brought to our attention by an academic in the Business School, we set out to investigate.

As Subeta Vimalarajah and Max Hall reported in Honi Soit earlier this semester, female academics are approved for promotion at around the same rate as male academics. However, there is a huge disparity in the number of women that apply for promotion in the first place: in 2015, 36 per cent of the applications for promotion to Associate Professor, and less than a quarter of applicants to the Professor level, were women.

This suggests to us that aspects of the promotions procedure may discourage women from applying. Research output forms a major component of any application, and is counted as “the number of publications since last appointment or promotion to the current level”. However, when academics take time off to give birth or care for children, this number drops dramatically. Women are disproportionately burdened with this reproductive labour, and the promotions policy does not account for this inequality. In fact, it punishes women who choose to take leave and care for children.

Women academics are thus faced with a tough choice between children and their career. Professor Marian Baird, the Director of the WomenWork Research Group at USyd, believes that women should be rewarded for their reproductive labour. She suggested that people who take time off to care for children could even receive the equivalent of one or two publications in their applications to compensate for this labour. This would promote a culture in which academics don’t have to fear their careers being negatively affected by having children.

‘Service to the University’ is another crucial part of applications for promotion. Academics must prove ‘ongoing involvement’ with boards and committees. Involvement cannot be ongoing, however, if an academic takes leave to care for children. Appointment to these committees is also often done by ‘shoulder-tapping’, and relies on having good networks with senior staff. This process itself is ripe for sexism (and racism, and homophobia, and transphobia), an issue that could be solved with affirmative action quotas.

We are currently preparing a report for the Equity and Diversity Working Group on bias in the academic promotion procedures. If you are an academic and feel you have experienced discrimination in applying for promotions, or have been discouraged by certain aspects of the policy, please get in touch with us – we’d love to hear your story. Email vice.president@src.usyd. edu.au.