Small steps bring about big gains for women in higher education

It is almost unbelievable in the year 2020, but in academic circles, work attributed to male authors is still generally considered more creative and of higher scientific quality, than that of their female counterparts.

Observed in research published by Ohio University’s Prof Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick and her colleagues, it is just one of many biases that unconsciously permeate academic and corporate life, often undermining women’s achievements and capabilities.

Researchers from UniSA’s Centre for Workplace Excellence have developed a “roadshow” – Small Steps – Everyday actions to reduce gender inequality in Academia – aimed at raising awareness of unconscious bias and providing strategies to mitigate its impacts in teaching and research from both student and teacher perspectives.

Dr Jill Gould says the program draws on international evidence-based research that has shown a range of biases exist for women that left unchallenged by students, researchers and academic teachers, will continue to act to limit women in the university sector.

“We are working with academic staff to present new ways of approaching assessments, course materials and case studies, and managing group or classroom interactions, to support equity and get rid of existing biases,” Dr Gould says.

“Some of the simplest things can make a huge difference – such as ensuring all papers marked are not gender identified – eliminating the unconscious bias that Prof Knobloch-Westerwick’s team discovered.

“And there are other changes we recommend, such as ensuring active and successful female protagonists feature in at least 50 per cent of the materials used as case studies in classes – at the moment women make up only about 20 per cent of positive case study materials used for teaching.”

Co-presenter for the “roadshow” and a leading researcher at the Centre, Professor Carol Kulik says bringing together research from across the globe and a range of disciplines is clear evidence that in many learning and work settings, women are being marginalised in myriad ways.

“It is a persistent bias – we find in presentation sessions; men ask nearly twice as many questions as women and women’s academic presentations are interrupted by questions more than men.

“When you become conscious of these things, there is a lot you can do to prevent them being a problem – easy things, like structuring presentation sessions to separate presentation and question times.

“Look beyond traditional reading lists and cast your net wide to cite more women in research papers and upend a bias that has fewer women cited, even in fields where they are well represented in research.”

Prof Kulik says the “roadshow” has been designed to help academics and researchers at UniSA improve their understanding of equity issues and turn around behaviours that work against workplace equity, but they have wider applications for many workplaces.

“Language is a really interesting one – we find where men are more often described as outstanding and intellectual women are hardworking and thorough,” Prof Kulik says.

“That kind of language always relegates women to workhorse – never the racehorse.

“And when it comes to just landing a job, research has shown, when only one woman appears on a shortlist, there’s statistically no chance she’ll be hired – so we can always ensure there are two women on the shortlist – and help turn that bias around.”

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