A personal perspective on how far women in universities have come in the past 50 years.
I celebrated my 50th birthday last month, and while women don't often like to highlight those milestones, I have used it as a personal reflection of the past 50 years.
I've used the metaphor of a twisted ladder for two reasons. First for promotional and leadership levels in the working world. A ‘twisted ladder' also is a nod to one of my personal heroes, Rosalind Franklin. She was an X-ray crystallographer at King's College in London in the 1950s and provided the evidence that James Watson and Francis Crick used, without her permission or knowledge, to crack the scientific discovery of that century, the twisted ladder or helix-like structure of DNA. She was never awarded the Nobel prize.
So how have things moved on for women since then?
In the 1960s, pregnant women, and most women who married, had to resign from university work. In 1963, the year I was born, the first female professor was appointed at UWA, Mary Lockett, Professor of Pharmacology.
I was born in Perth and lived in the Goldfields where my father was the principal of a small school. I spent a lot of time with my father, developing a wonderful bond that still endures. He always said I could do anything I wanted to and supported me all the way.
Ten years on, the Tavern at UWA opened in 1975 but more importantly Unicare (childcare) opened in 1972.
We moved to Geraldton where I spent my school years. I regularly visited Perth and stayed with my grandmother, Alma Venville, who was on the local council and, from 1975-1977, the first female Mayor of the City of Stirling. I was surrounded by hard-working, successful women in leadership roles who loved and cared for me and, on reflection, inspired me. I thought that was normal.
In the 1980s we had a State Equal Opportunity Act and at UWA Professor Cheryl Praeger became the first mother to be appointed to a Chair. The Status of Women Group lobbied for equal opportunity. And women held only 15 per cent of academic posts, most as senior tutors and below.
I was at UWA studying Science and Education. I had only two female lecturers in four years.
During my teaching practicum at Carine SHS in 1984, I remember being told by the principal not to wear trousers. I thought that was a ridiculously impractical instruction for a science teacher who was working in a laboratory so I ignored him and I still got an ‘A' for practicum.
In the 1990s, 48 per cent of students at UWA were women, and women made up 55 per cent of the general staff and 22 per cent of the academic staff, the lowest proportion of women across all Australian universities.
In 1990, there were no women in senior management and only three female professors compared with 92 male professors.
But in that same year, the first female Vice-Chancellor at UWA and in the Go8 -the late Professor Fay Gale - was appointed.
I married and had two babies and started my PhD in genetics education and heard of Rosalind Franklin for the first time.
By 2000, UWA had 12 female professors alongside 118 male professors, but five women in senior management.
I had a postdoctoral appointment at King's College London - in a building named the Franklin-Wilkins Building!
And now in the second decade of the 21st century, UWA has been named employer of choice for women for the 11th consecutive year, but still only 10 per cent of the female academic staff are professors, while 30 per cent of male academic staff hold this position.
So how far have we come? A long way. Women are climbing the ladder, but there are plenty of twists in it. I've managed to negotiate many of the challenges and there are important messages I learnt along the way:
We must be better role models and mentors; encourage men to advocate for women; be defiant, stand up to and speak out about any sexual harassment and discrimination, and encourage and support appropriate behaviour; and celebrate female heroes, like Rosalind Franklin, and tell their stories
Winthrop Professor Grady Venville
Dean of Coursework Studies
(An edited version of her speech at UWA on International Women's Day 2013)
Published in UWA News, April 2013