Changing the Culture of Gender at ANU

Last year in response to Change the Course (The Australian Human Right Commission’s Survey into Sexual Assault and Harassment at Australian Universities) our vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt said: “The results are shocking and we should all be shocked.”

But I did not find the results shocking — and I was not alone in this.

For me they are a reflection of what I have come to understand as business as usual during my time at university.

As a student who spent two years living in a residential college, it comes as no surprise to me that the recently released The Red Zone Report details endemic bullying, hazing practices and predatory sexual behaviour. Change the Course outlined that in 2015 and 2016, one in 10 female university students were raped or sexually assaulted, and that residential college students were seven times more likely than non-college students to have been raped or sexually assaulted on campus. This is not shocking to me, but rather, the logical result of norms that are upheld through the deeply entrenched and revered traditions and attitudes of college culture.

As a student advocate who regularly hears disclosures, it came as no surprise to me that Change the Course indicated that international, disabled, Indigenous and queer students experience higher rates of sexual violence than the rest of the student population.

As someone who has experienced misogynistic bullying — having my subject matter and intellectual authority belittled in front of my class by a colleague when I was working as a lecturer — it comes as no surprise to me that we see the same problematic behaviours detailed in Change the Course at the student level.

As someone who has witnessed misogynistic bullying in my graduate student cohort, it comes as no surprise to me that the School of Philosophy receives few female applicants to its graduate program and that at departmental seminars there is often only a single woman in the room.

In the discipline of philosophy more broadly, I am yet to meet a single woman who has not been sexually harassed by a more senior academic at a conference. Given this, and the marginalisation of feminist and other approaches to philosophical enquiry that result in a highly gendered rubric of what counts as research excellence, it comes as no surprise to me that the drop-out rate for women in the field is vastly higher than it is for men, and that there are few women occupying senior academic positions in this discipline.

These experiences are not the result of a few bad eggs — they are indicative of the academic and campus culture we all participate in.  Sexual harassment, assault and misogyny are not shocking for me as they are for Professor Schmidt. For me, and people like me, this is the status quo. This speaks to the vastly stratified experience of university life, which is dependent on our bodies, gender identities and sexual preferences. This disparity produces a gap in mental health, academic and professional outcomes. I think if there is anything surprising, shocking or new about these survey results, and the #metoo cultural moment more broadly, it is the public discourse surrounding it and the widespread professed commitment to change.

I find myself cautiously hopeful that this moment may bring about accelerated and meaningful cultural reform. We have an opportunity here, but the results we profess to desire are far from inevitable. History has taught us that this will not be an issue that resolves itself if given enough time.

It is easy to say that you support gender equity — it is harder to stand up to a senior academic in your field who says something sexist at a conference dinner. Too often it is the victims of this misogyny who are tasked with intervening. It is easy to publically commit to a zero-tolerance policy on sexual assault and harassment, it is harder, in a competitive economy, to prioritise providing the adequate funding, expertise and sustained motivation that is required to make meaningful change at an institutional level to these deeply entrenched cultural norms. I echo sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkin’s comments that law and policy may be necessary but that they are far from sufficient for bringing about cultural change. We need both top-down and bottom-up reform if we are to tackle this issue.

The standard you walk past is the standard you accept. To make progress towards gender equity, every member of our community will have to make uncomfortable changes to our daily practices.  This will involve giving up privileges that many in our community benefit from — for those who experience privilege, equality can feel like oppression. Crucially we need to recognise that our lived experience of campus culture is vastly different from the experiences of others who have bodies, identities and backgrounds that are different from our own.

As the suffragettes proclaimed, we need “deeds not words” and we need them from all members of our community.

Click for information on PARSA campaigns around this issue.

Click to visit the website where the recordings and transcripts of the speeches and responses will be posted.