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Women, choice and promotion: why women are still a minority in the professoriate

Women, choice and promotion: why women are still a minority in the professoriate

27 March 2012, by Dr Joanne Pyke

Joanne Pyke is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Economic Studies at Victoria University. Her PhD thesis explores why women continue to be a minority in senior academic roles in Australian universities despite more than 25 years of equal opportunity policies and legislation.


Australian higher education is commonly described as ‘feminised’ with overall numbers of both female students and academic staff outnumbering men. At the same time, women remain a minority as senior academics in Australian higher education. In 2009, the national average of female appointments above Level D (Associate Professor) was 26.5% (QUT Equity Services 2011). This is despite the fact that universities have, by and large, complied with Equal Opportunity legislation and have systematically worked towards gender equity in senior academic leadership (Winchester, Chesterman et al. 2005). This has worked to the extent that the gender balance is approaching equal at Level C yet there is a noted trend that women tend to withdraw from seeking promotion just at the point that they have the qualifications and experience to be eligible for promotion to Level D (Probert 2005).

There are many explanations for why women in leadership remain a minority and the broader literature draws attention to the multiple systemic barriers that affect women’s progress in academe. Doughney (2007) for example, highlights the gendered outcomes of professorial appointments made through external recruitment process – a process that heavily favours men. Others highlight the power of ‘gender inequality practices’ that operate to cancel out the effect of gender equity strategies and make systemic discrimination invisible (van den Brink and Benschop 2012). An alternative explanation, and one that has been influential, comes from human capital theory that explain women’s under-representation as an outcome of ‘choice’. That is that women choose not to pursue senior academic positions in preference to balancing work and other responsibilities, particularly caring for children and families (Hakim 2000).

This article is based on a detailed case study of one Australian university (Pyke 2009) that investigates women’s aspirations for promotion drawing on in-depth interviews with women appointed at Level C from across disciplines, cultural backgrounds and age groups. The findings do not inspire optimism that gender equity in the professoriate will be achieved any time soon. Within the case study, only one interviewee had the aspiration of being appointed at Level E (Professor) confidently in her sights. There was also a large minority who aspired to reaching Level D although most were cautious about their prospects of achieving this. The majority, however, considered promotion to be highly unlikely, untenable or undesirable because of a range of circumstances.

First, and contrary to what human capital theories would suggest, women at Level C are highly invested in their careers in order to have been appointed at Level C in the first instance. This requires, at best, a good ten years of study and experience and longer if there are other distractions such as having children. Despite this investment, whether or not women aspire to the next level is commonly tenuous.

Factors that encourage promotion aspirations are related to personal, disciplinary and organisational conditions and those that were the most enthused about seeking promotion have had the sustained weight of conditions in their favour. A major factor was becoming eligible to seek promotion at a relatively early career stage. This meant starting early on a particular disciplinary path, in a field with expanding career opportunities, completing a PhD and accumulating teaching experience and a research track record in a tenured academic position before retirement was starting to be a realistic option. Another factor was having had the benefit of a trusted mentor or critical colleague to help negotiate the ever changing academic ‘game’ and support in the development of influential professional networks. Working in a collegiate organisational unit also helped in surviving continuous higher education reform with an ever-increasing administration, research and teaching load. A key factor was relative freedom from, or support with, care responsibilities and that their immediate family remained well over the course of their careers. One critical blow to career aspirations was the illness of a child, spouse or parent that just could not be managed along-side a more senior academic role.

It remains the case that the chances of sustaining these conditions over the fifteen or more years it takes to reach Level D are weighed in men’s favour. The list of conditions that slow women down in their careers, in ways that men aren’t, remains long. Unequal responsibility for child/family care and interrupted careers to have children is one factor. Women’s concentration in a narrow range of less prestigious and well resourced disciplines also limits the possibilities. These and many other conditions combine to slow down women in developing the kind of academic capital, confidence and aspiration necessary to apply for promotion.

While each individual has varied freedoms, opportunities and circumstances, women generally are positioned in academe in ways that men often aren’t. As a result, these, and a myriad of other circumstances shape the possibility of whether or not it is feasible or desirable to seek promotion. For many women in academe, by the time they are qualified and experienced enough to be eligible for promotion, there is no choice. If gender equity in the professoriate is the goal, more direct affirmative action measures are needed.



Doughney, J. and J. Vu (2007) "Unequal outcomes for women academics in Australian universities: Reflections on Belinda Probert's 'I just couldn't fit it in'." Journal of Business Systems, Governance and Ethics 2 (4): 55-65.

Hakim, C. (2000) Work-lifestyle choices in the 21st Century: preference theory. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Probert, B. (2005) "I just couldn't fit it in: Gender and unequal outcomes in academic careers." Gender, Work and Organization 12 (1): 50-72.

Pyke, J. (2009) “Perspectives from below the ceiling: Academic Women and the Transition from Level C to the Professoriate in Australian Higher Education – A Case Study”, Victoria University, [].

QUT Equity Services (2011) Selected inter-institutional gender equity statistics: Australia-wide statistics 2009, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane.

Van den Brink, M. and Y. Benschop (2012) "Slaying the Seven-Headed Dragon: The Quest for Gender Change in Academia." Gender, Work & Organization 19 (1): 71-92.

Winchester, H., C. Chesterman, et al. (2005) The great barrier myth: an investigation of promotions policy and practice in Australian universities, Canberra, Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee (AVCC).

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