Universities need to focus on retaining and attracting academic talent but also ensure systems and robust process are in place which not only encourage but actively nurture women to apply for promotion

Since 2000, women have represented more than 50 per cent of the persons employed in Australian universities. Every year since then, the proportion of women has increased; except in 2021, when a 0.1 point decreased was observed, from 58.5 per cent in 2020 to 58.4 per cent in 2021 (1). Understandably, this small decrease is attributed to the first year of the pandemic which hit women harder than men (see Wood, Griffith & Crowley, 2021).

To put this in perspective, women represent 47.6 per cent of the number of persons employed across all industries in Australia (2), and women account for 72.2 per cent of persons employed in the overall Education and Training industry (3).

However, the focus of this commentary is on the transformation of the workforce in Australia higher education; specifically, the proportion of women in leadership positions. I also foresee when parity is likely to be attained and briefly discuss some of the challenges which lay ahead. Attainment of this parity is one strategic goal that many universities strive for.

Women in Leadership positions

Defined as those persons whose current duties or positions are: academic at Levels D and E (i.e., Associate Professor and Professor), plus senior executive staff and Higher Education Worker Level 10. The latter two categories are considered professional staff.

Overall, the proportion of women in leadership positions in Australian universities has increased from 21.0 per cent in 2001 to 41.2 per cent in 2021. On average, the annual rate of growth is 1 per cent over the 20-year period.

A better way to differentiate how this transformation has unfolded is to highlight changes by work function:

* women in academic leadership positions increased from 15.5 per cent in 2001 to 37.0 per cent in 2021

* women in professional leadership positions increased from 36.7 per cent in 2001 to 52.8 per cent in 2021.

For those who are in professional roles, gender parity was achieved in 2018 (50.0 per cent) and has since increased to 52.8 per cent in 2021. The growth of senior professional staff is due to a strong increase in those who occupy a senior executive role.

The true challenge for universities in attaining gender parity at senior level is in those persons who have an academic role (i.e., academic Levels D and Level E), rather than the aggregate composite which includes those who occupy professional roles.

Universities need to focus on retaining and attracting academic talent but also ensure systems and robust process are in place which not only encourage but actively nurture women to apply for promotion

The ability to attract academic talent is subject to fierce competition as every institution, both domestically and globally, is keen to have more women on board.

Gender parity

Should current trends in senior academic roles persist, gender parity is likely to be attained sometime between 2034 and 2036. Attainment of this goal is likely to depend on several factors;

* the ability of Australian universities to continue to attract talent from abroad

* the ability to employ both domestic and international students who complete doctorates

* the capacity to retain post doctorates and academic contract staff upon completions of their limited tenure.

Universities also need to consider the wider societal benefits of converting women casual staff to continuing academic positions.

The disciplines in which academics work matter and bear considerably on career pathways, possibly hindering the ability to be promoted. As a way of context, the statistical information publicly available from the Department of Employment, Skills and Employment (DESE) unfortunately does not provide a break down by discipline. There are discipline areas which traditionally have had higher labour force participation by  women (e.g., Health and Education). In contrast, the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) have had lower participation rate of women (see Dobson & Calderon, 1999 and Dobson, 2012).

The rate of employment in the STEM fields is where I think the true focus needs to be, as these are the fields which have the lowest employment rate of women at senior level. Invariably, the ability of universities to retain and attract staff depend on many factors.  A key one is their balance sheet, which has been affected by the pandemic.

Two key geopolitical happenings are worth noting as these are likely to hinder our ability to attain gender parity at senior academic level.

Firstly, the significant investment made in higher education and research in recent decades in Asia continues to shake the landscape of higher education, particularly in the STEM disciplines. Coincidently, Asian universities tend to do well in the STEM related subject areas and are progressively outperforming universities from the US, the UK, Australia, and other high-income economies (see CMM, 4 March 2021,  Calderon, 2021, Calderon, 2018).

Secondly, twenty years on from the Bologna Declaration, the Europeanisation of higher education in Europe continues unabated. We also see that European universities are focusing their efforts in uplifting academic endeavours in STEM areas.

Aspiring vice-chancellors

Opportunities of becoming a VC of an Australian university remain limited because of the number of institutions (43), tenure, and inter university mobility, amongst various other factors.

The number of women vice-chancellors in Australia has fluctuated over 2001 – 2021. On average there have been nine women vice-chancellors per year. The year with the lowest number was 2011 (six) and the highest was 13 in 2018. In 2021 there were ten woman VCs.

The total number of men and women Deputy Vice-Chancellors (DVCs) in Australian universities has increased from 113 in 2001 to 138 in 2021. It is worth noting that the number of DVCs have somewhat varied over this period; whether this reflects university restructuring or problems in the annual statistical returns need to be investigated. What is significant, is the proportion of women DVCs, has increased considerably from 18 per cent in 2001 to 45 per cent in 2021. Based on current trajectory, it is likely that there will be more women DVCs than men DVCs by 2026.

It will be interesting to see how many current DVCs become VCs in an Australian university or offshore institution in the next five years. The composition of the academic workforce is likely to be shaped by the choices (or lack of) made by academics at Level C (senior lecturer) and the kind of career pathways post pandemic.

Proportion of women employed in Australian higher education
2001 2006 2011 2016 2021
All staff 51.2% 53.5% 55.9% 56.9% 58.4%
Academic staff (all) 37.5% 40.9% 43.6% 45.2% 48.1%
In leadership positions 21.0% 26.8% 31.5% 35.8% 41.2%
In academic leadership positions 15.5% 22.9% 27.3% 31.8% 37.0%
In professional leadership positions 36.7% 40.8% 45.2% 48.7% 52.8%
Compiled by A J Calderon, using staff data files from DESE.


1. The figures used in this commentary are drawn from the annual staff data files issued by DESE which cover period 2014 and 2021. For the period between 2001 and 2013, figures used are those the time series file issued by DESE. The count of staff refers to those who are employed on a full-time and full-time equivalent basis and exclude casuals.

2. ABS Labour Force, Australia, Detailed. Table 06, November 2021.

3. ABS Labour Force Survey, SA4- Employment by Industry, November 2021.

Angel Calderon is principal advisor, planning and research at RMIT





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