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Gender equality benefits us all

Growing up, I was fortunate enough to attend Sydney’s academically selective St George Girls High School. At that time I felt I had many more advantages than women from previous generations and didn’t think there were any issues in terms of gender inequality in Australia.

This opinion was reinforced both when I studied optometry and during my time as a researcher. However, the problem became visible for me when I went on my C.J Martin postdoctoral fellowship to the UK and was more aligned with medicine and the other STEMM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, Medicine).

During this time I became aware of some of the more unfortunate patriarchal traits that are inherent within STEMM – suddenly I was exposed, both directly and indirectly, to sexism and gender bias in a myriad of different ways.

My experience was not unique, and the widespread problem eventually resulted in the establishment of an accreditation program designed to enhance gender equity in STEMM disciplines. This successful program was also recently implemented in Australia, but while there has been awareness and motivation to change, we are still faced with many domestic examples of gender bias within STEMM.

"However, this isn’t to say that men are bigots or that they don’t deserve the positions they hold. Nor is the problem of gender bias unique to men; nevertheless, it exists."

A 2016 Senate inquiry exposed institutionalised sexual discrimination, bullying and harassment in our medical colleges, including RANZCO, while as recently as last month the Australian Human Rights Commission revealed more than one in five students had experienced sexual harassment in a university setting.

The evidence is also borne out in less obvious ways, and a comparison of the number of female STEMM graduates and their representation in higher positions at Australian universities and research labs is equally damning. Despite women comprising more than half of the bachelor level graduates within STEMM, nearly 80% of professors are male, while six out of eight vice chancellors in Australia’s prestigious G08 universities are also currently male.

However, this isn’t to say that men are bigots or that they don’t deserve the positions they hold. Nor is the problem of gender bias unique to men; nevertheless, it exists.

A 2012 study exposed unconscious bias within STEMM disciplines by demonstrating that both men and women judged CVs, papers, teaching and even student essays to be superior when labelled with a male name. In the study, identical application materials submitted under a female name were judged as less qualified, while in addition, the hiring committee offered a higher salary and more mentorship to selected ‘male’ applicants.

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So if the bias may be something we are not even aware is happening, how do we combat it? The good news is we’ve already made a start.

Having a conversation about gender bias and acknowledging its existence is the first step toward progress. The challenge now is to bring that conversation into the mainstream by shifting cultural norms and baselines. This is achieved through encouraging discussions on gender inequity, speaking out against sexism and harassment, recognising and removing conscious and implicit bias, and weakening stereotypes.

Finally, it’s also important for the other half of this equation – men.

It should not be inferred that improving women’s position in the workforce automatically diminishes the status or wellbeing of men. In fact, it’s been shown that there are many benefits for men that are positively correlated with increased gender equality.

Their psychological and physical health improves and the gender gap in life expectancy decreases. In general, men are happier, enjoy a better quality of life, and are able to spend more time with friends and family in societies where greater gender equality exists.

We all want to see our daughters grow up in a society where they are judged on their abilities, not what they are perceived to be able to do; and for our sons to see that as the norm. In the current environment, it does mean creating opportunities for women and encouraging them to take the next step.

The advantages are there, but as with any kind of change, it can be hard to get everyone pulling in the same direction.

Therefore it must start with you, me, all of us. Which, if you think about it is only fair, because in the end the changes that occur will benefit all of us as well.

Name: Nicole Carnt
Qualifications: BOptom, PhD
Organisation: School of Optometry and Vision Science, UNSW
Position: Scientia Fellow
Location: UNSW, Sydney
Years in the profession: 29


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