Redressing gender inequities in academia

27 Feb 2020

Professor Cobie Rudd

Professor Cobie Rudd, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Strategic Partnerships) and Vice-President at Edith Cowan University (ECU), has key responsibility for redressing gender inequities in academia for ECU, the only Australian university to be named after a woman. She led ECU’s participation in the first pilot of the Athena SWAN Charter in Australia and achieved accreditation under this international scheme in December 2018; ECU was one of only 15 organisations to receive the award nationally.

Congratulations on receiving the Athena SWAN bronze award in December; this must have been a very proud moment for you. You’re passionate about addressing the gender imbalance in the higher education sector, can you tell us a bit about ECU’s action plan?

To receive the award is a great legacy in the spirit of Edith Cowan herself. I’m proud of what we've achieved. We've also achieved the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA), employer of choice for gender equality citation for successive years.

We’ve had many proud moments along the way to achieving the Bronze Award:

  • 90 ECU Athena SWAN parking bays across all three campuses for staff and students doing the school run.
  • the Edith Cowan Athena SWAN Parenting Room, which joined four others, was accredited by the Australian Breastfeeding Association (and the South-West campus has crèche facilities for students with children).
  • the ECU Athena SWAN Advancement Scheme has supported 11 female staff members (nine of which are STEM women). It's been money that's untied to effectively help them do what they want to do, such as returning to work after taking parental and carer breaks, achieving professional development aspirations, attending conferences which support career progression, or having access to childcare. It’s been used to help early career researchers kick-start STEM-based projects, and we’ve used it to run gender equality initiatives at the university.

The work we’ve done in the last three years has really broken down barriers, removed obstacles and most importantly, you can see it on a broad scale. It's actually changed attitudes and behaviours. It's by no means about fixing the women, it's about fixing the environment and how people behave, and then in turn, of course, fixing the culture.

Moving forward, our Action Plan spans four years. We have very measurable goals—what I call “targets with teeth”. We have 50/50 for women and men on committees. We have sponsorship and mentoring schemes, a raft of initiatives to get more women to apply for promotions, a lot of strategies to actually attract women into the STEM fields and sustain them and nurture them while they're there.

And not only do we have outcome measures, but we have impact measures, which I think are most important. We can have 50/50 here and there, but so what? What impact is this all really having?

Looking more broadly across Western Australia, four out of the five vice-chancellors are female. Is that an indication of Western Australia leading the way in gender equality in the sector, do you think?

Yes and no. No, in that it’s not a quota system, it’s merit based. It so happens these applicants were the best. And yes, because women are encouraged to apply across all universities in the country, but we know women don’t always put their hat in the ring, so it’s great to see WA leading the way in promoting visible female exemplars.

And what can’t be ignored is that ECU’s Professor Steve Chapman—the male vice-chancellor—is a very, very strong advocate for gender equality. He's a national Male Champion of Change in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). He's a Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) Gender Pay Equity Ambassador. He’s a CEO for Gender Equity (WA). That in itself, having the only male to be such a champion for gender equality, is yet again another dimension to where we're positioned.

What challenges do you see ahead in regards to gender inequity in the higher education sector? Do you think we'll see a narrowing of the gender gap in STEM?

I do think we’ll see the gap between men and women decrease in STEM because there's so much collective action that we can't go backwards. I don't think we'll get gender equality on a global scale for a long time, but for STEM in Australia, I think we will. We know STEM employment nationally is only 16% female (university and VET graduates) and women are scarce in STEM courses, but with Athena SWAN and other initiatives, we’re already starting to put so many things into place. We’ve got quotas, action plans holding leaders accountable to achieving specific targets, leadership capability development and frameworks unlike we've ever had, new mentoring and sponsorship approaches, and we've got a strong commitment to shifting perceptions and rectifying stereotypes, both within the higher education sector and industry.

It’s a fact that superannuation savings for women are on average less than men, do you think the universities and/or UniSuper could do more to address this imbalance?

It’s so unacceptable that we have 80 year-old women in poverty in this country. I feel very strongly about redressing the issue of women retiring with less money than men, because it takes away their freedom and their decision making and of course, erodes confidence as well.

We need to keep boosting awareness and education on financial matters. UniSuper does that very well, through your seminars and education programs for women and super, and universities need to actively promote those sessions. The UniSuper Centre on our Joondalup campus is a great resource for staff.

We were thrilled when UniSuper partnered with us on the ECU Development Fund (an initiative to raise awareness about the challenges many women face that impact career development and superannuation savings) because women retiring in an economically sustainable way is a life changing goal that we need to collectively pursue.

As highlighted earlier, as a national Pay Equity Ambassador, our Vice-Chancellor, Steve Chapman boosts the profile of the gender pay gap in media, because ultimately, the pay gap becomes the retirement savings gap.

We continue to work towards redressing financial bias through ECU remuneration committee and ongoing gender pay gap analysis work. It’s important we monitor and track our progress by redefining the way we look at work flexibility, recruitment, promotion and reward processes; and increase awareness of gender pay gap issues through our ongoing relationships with the community.

Finally, if you had a wish or wishes for ECU, the sector or personally, what would they be?

My personal wish would be more time, for sure!

For the University and more broadly, I’d love to see both men and women equally pushing the agenda for gender equality at ECU and across the sector. Initiatives like the SAGE Pilot of Athena SWAN are fundamental in creating real change. It will take both men and women to really make things happen – and see our male champions shine for the cause.

I hope to see our many talented girls and women capable of entering and excelling in STEM careers, getting through the pipeline. I hope ECU continues to provide:

  • strong visible and diverse role models
  • an awareness-raising and bias-busting culture that’s evident through ongoing events, initiatives, partnerships and sponsorships
  • an ever-growing body of better practice – developed in consultation with our staff and students that we can share across the community.

At ECU, it’s not our role simply to elevate the voices of women at our university but to also ensure they are heard across boundaries. This way we can have not only sector-wide impact, but influence for change across all workplaces. I wish for gender equality to always remain a high priority and hope the work we’re doing now leaves a legacy. I’d like to see the University remain a leader in exemplifying cultural transformation in this space; pushing boundaries through very tangible strategies such as working towards stretch targets and collectively being vocal in calling out bias when we see it.