ANU fails women with male-dominated leadership forum

There was a moment last month when the ANU looked as contemporary on the gender front as the Abbott government, whose cabinet notoriously includes only one woman.

It was the day The Australian Financial Review ran a story headlined, “World leaders, thinkers to speak at ANU forum”. Of the 10 head shots accompanying this piece on the forthcoming Crawford Australian Leadership Forum, only one was a woman - yes, the only woman in the Abbott cabinet, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. She was the only woman mentioned in the body of the story, too, alongside 22 men named as speakers or ANU officials connected with the event.

Lonely at the top: Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is the only woman in the cabinet and among the minority involved in the ...
Lonely at the top: Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is the only woman in the cabinet and among the minority involved in the forthcoming Crawford Australian Leadership Forum. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Little wonder tweets like this from Women’s Leadership Institute Australia chief Carol Schwartz started flying around: “Is Julie Bishop the only female world leader/thinker that Australia has?? Come on ANU Crawford!!”

The grinding task of diligent checking led me to the Forum’s online draft program where 43 individuals are named, though not Bishop. Adding her takes it to 44. Of those 44 individuals, 10 (22.7 per cent) named in the draft program are women. Only five women (11.4 per cent) are speakers, however, with four of the others being panel chairs and one being a rapporteur. “It’s like having a barrel girl, isn’t it,” someone commented when discussing these paltry numbers. “They think if they have a woman as a moderator or a panel chair, that counts.”

The ANU being one of the smartest places in Australia, this is depressing. It represents, at best, that awful phenomenon: smart and often good people not trying nearly hard enough to address wrongheadedness. Other possible explanations are laziness, ignorance, protection of male privilege and misogyny, but knowing some of the people involved, I’m going with the earlier explanation.

Behind the scenes there’s much grief about this among women too loyal to ANU - and let’s put it bluntly, who are vulnerable because they depend on it for their livelihoods - to express their outrage publicly. Some of the angst focuses on chancellor Gareth Evans who has a reputation for being brusque - bullying is a harsh word - and who is perceived as a driving force behind this inaugural forum. There is a growing perception of a cultural problem in the Chancellory Building that no one is game to speak out about, or do anything about. There are men as well as women who are worried, and not just in relation to gender issues, but remain quiescent given there seems no obvious avenue for redress.

Evans is far from alone among the many brainy people who think they “get it” and then are ostensibly mystified by blowback for what they feel was actually a good effort. They should read the Katrina Hutchison and Fiona Jenkins-edited Women in Philosophy: What Needs to Change? (OUP, 2014). It is the most clearly written and carefully reasoned exposition I’ve seen for years of the same issues underlying this Crawford Forum faux pas.

The 13 philosophers and one statistician contributing to Women in Philosophy: What Needs to Change? explore why, while disciplines like history and sociology have seen dramatic improvements in their gender profile over the past 30 years, philosophy has not. The statistics on women in philosophy are stuck - worryingly at as low a level as that in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. A number of factors are canvassed, including why the pipeline effect once expected to resolve gender imbalances hasn’t, the impact of cumulative microinequities, and how stubbornly gendered philosophy remains with, overwhelmingly, men teaching an almost exclusively male-authored canon, extrapolating almost entirely from male experiences, and often duking it out philosophically in an overtly masculine manner. Crucially, the book explains why this matters not just for women but for philosophy. The parallels with the Crawford Forum are obvious.

ANU isn’t in a position to rest on its laurels on the gender front: it has a notably low proportion of women among its senior academic ranks compared to other Australian universities. The Crawford Australian Leadership Forum program is high-profile proof that necessary change has not occurred at the top - and if it doesn’t happen at the top, it won’t happen anywhere else. Given the chancellor’s involvement, who is going to make the Crawford School accountable for this unfortunately slack effort?