Forget the Ideal Worker Myth. Unis Need to Become More Inclusive for All Women (Men will Benefit Too)

By Leisa Sargent and Eileen Baldry

Movements like #metoo and #blacklivesmatter have increased voice and visibility of gender and race disparities in society and, in particular, workplaces. That includes universities. As we recover from the pandemic, we need innovative approaches to reshaping workplace rituals, rules and routines to advance gender equality and ensure safe workplaces.

Universities, where we prepare professionals and leaders of tomorrow, should be demonstrating and leading these changes. It’s time to:

  • embed an inclusive leadership approach
  • move more quickly towards gender equality
  • challenge the barriers to greater diversity
  • acknowledge the unequal power relations that exist in universities.

Stop assuming the ideal worker exists: the myth is busted. Chaining people to their desks or labs for every available productive hour is not responsible or effective. Nor does it create a sense of autonomy, wellness or active connections to the workplace or community.

Finding better ways of working

Treating people with dignity and respect can achieve more meaningful ways of working. In particular, universities need to broaden the range of flexible work options. These options include:

  • being adaptable about where work is done
  • changing start and finish times
  • shorter week
  • adapting role types and leave arrangements
  • ensuring meeting times allow for community and family commitments.

More innovative approaches include vertical job share. For example, in an 80/20 split of time between two staff the division of role responsibility rests with the senior job share partner. Innovation calls for a work mindset shift from “no way” to “it starts with yes” when it comes to flexibility.

Women are traditionally seen as needing flexibility due to caring responsibilities. However, increasing flexibility for men is an often neglected but necessary part of change. It’s an obvious way to increase options for men to share family and community involvement.

When Australian universities have introduced more flexible and progressive arrangements the results have been positive. For example, “rules” on who gets a car park (such as accessibility based on caring responsibilities), promotion and lecture start times have been rewritten. Increased participation and productivity are among the many benefits that flow from more meaningful work and opportunities for women (and men) across the hierarchy.

adoptable workplace
Workplaces that are adaptable about where work is done have seen increases in participation and productivity. Shutterstock

Creating leadership pathways

However, universities need to go further. Academic and professional promotion and reward structures need to measure and recognise the impacts of all the work academics and professionals do beyond traditional measures. Measures of social, environmental, cultural and economic impacts on communities, industries, government and media are vital to ensure we are contributing to equity in society. One innovative example of such impacts is tax clinics that advise to lower-income taxpayers and small businesses while also providing practical experience for accounting/tax students.

Athena Swan has exposed the dearth of data in universities on workforce diversity such as LGBTQI+, Indigenous and migrant women. Acting on this will mean higher education encompasses a broader range of women’s diverse lives. This includes their experiences of cultural identities, disability and sexual orientation.

The HR data are meaningless unless the information adds value to the people it describes. And that requires a critical conversation about how to collect new types of data and willingness to provide it.

Universities, governments and countries cannot thrive without including all members of society. Women, especially those from diverse backgrounds, still have fewer pathways and more barriers to leadership.

Universities have enormous opportunities to be at the forefront of ensuring more gender-diverse women, more women of colour, more women with disability and more LGBTQI+ women reach senior leadership positions. Indeed, they have a moral obligation to show the way.

Creating these pathways for diverse women will also challenge how universities operate in terms of visibility, dominant cultures and beliefs. Underrepresented women (such as of colour) have not benefited from anti-discrimination legislation or equity policies in the same way white women have.

Helping students become better citizens

Academics have a duty to create transformational educational experiences and ways of learning in partnership with our students. In particular, they need a better understanding of the nature of privilege.

Universities must work to ensure the educational experience helps students develop their competencies in active, critical, empathetic and committed citizenship. These are essential aspects of 21st-century higher education.

In practice, this means continuing to create better pathways of access and participation for underrepresented students. Tutorials, labs and studios must become inclusive learning environments.

All these measures will help improve opportunities for students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds and for women in professions and disciplines where they are underrepresented.

Diversity and inclusion underpin vitality

A fundamental challenge universities face as we recover from the pandemic is to create and sustain organisational strategies that support and celebrate the investments of energy by women (and men) of diverse backgrounds. This applies both to their own careers and to realising the university’s mission.

At the core of the strategy is a deep understanding of the connection between gender and other identities for staff and students. We need to hear women’s voices from diverse backgrounds and experiences. In this way we can educate ourselves and improve our policies, practices and ways of leading.

This process of transformation is essential for universities to be safe, vital and innovative places of learning, work and research for all. Rising to this challenge means we will be well prepared for a more sustainable, equitable and just society.

This article was originally published in The Conversation on 8 March 2021. It can be accessed here:

About the Author

leisaProfessor Leisa Sargent is Senior Deputy Dean of the UNSW Business School, alongside her role as Co-DVC Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. She is committed to sustainability, and enhancing equity, diversity and inclusion and developing better access and educational experiences for students. 

EileenEileen Baldry AO (BA, DipEd, MWP, PhD) is Deputy Vice Chancellor Inclusion and Diversity and Professor of Criminology, UNSW Sydney. She has taught social policy, social development and criminology over the past 30 years.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The Political Anthropologist.