Achieving Gender Equity Targets Through Systemic Change

7 April 2020

The workshop ‘Achieving gender equity targets through systemic change’ took place at the Catalysing Gender Equity Conference on 20 February 2020. The workshop summary report follows.

Facilitators: SAGE NSW Regional Network

  • Dr Kieryn McKay, Western Sydney University
  • Professor Janice Aldrich-Wright, Western Sydney University
  • Alicia Pearce, University of Technology Sydney
  • Annie Fenwicke, The University of Sydney
  • Matthew Pye, The University of Sydney
  • Professor Renae Ryan, The University of Sydney
  • Jo Hatton, Macquarie University
  • Professor Lesley Hughes, Macquarie University
  • Maree Mahoney, Defence Science & Technology
  • Kylie Owens, University of New South Wales
  • Therese Donlevey, ANSTO

 Objective/s: To generate productive discussion around how institutions might work together to mitigate sector-wide barriers to achieving gender equity targets, and to identify recommendations for how SAGE and other relevant national bodies might support this collective action as we move into the post-Pilot Athena SWAN implementation phase.

Workshop summary:

  1. Introduction (Kieryn McKay):
  • Targets enumerate gender equity objectives but are often not accompanied by detailed strategies to achieve them. Shared difficulties in achieving targets crystallises sector-wide challenges.
  • SAGE Pilot process required inward-facing institutional analysis, post-pilot phase could engage the breadth of the STEMM sector (higher education, industry, NGOs, government bodies, and broader communities) in shared work and collective action.
  • Aim of workshop is to identify some of the ways in which systemic change can be effected by sector-wide (global) strategy, connectedness, and responsiveness.
  1. Findings from the UTS Symposium: “Strategies of Success: Implementing Gender Workforce Targets in STEMM”, July 2019 (Alicia Pearce)
  • Every Australian Athena SWAN Bronze Institutional application set gender equity targets, including for STEMM female participation, senior representation, recruitment, progression, succession planning, and/or pay equity.
  • The way we implement targets will affect their success. Targets need to be:
    • Socially ambitious and focused on diversity beyond gender;
    • Multifactorial and applicable at all levels of organisational process;
    • Supported and scaffolded;
    • Measured and rewarded.
  • A full report on the UTS Symposium is available from the UTS Centre for Social Justice and Inclusion at
  1. Practical Experiences of Target Setting in STEMM

Case Study 1: Local Strategies, Local Solutions (Janice Aldrich-Wright)

  • Western Sydney University (WSU) has strong gender equity numbers already: 53% of all STEMM staff are female; 44% of STEMM academic staff are female. However, female underrepresentation persists in certain areas (e.g., School of Computing, Engineering and Mathematics).
  • In 2015, WSU set university-wide targets for 40% female academic job applications, 40% female academic shortlists, and 40% female senior representation by 2020. No targets were set for cultural diversity or other intersectional factors.
  • University-level (global) strategy was implemented, including: gender equity policy, strategy, and action plans; oversight by VC’s Gender Equality Committee; strengthened processes in recruitment, induction, mentoring, and promotions; gender equity research fund established.
  • School-level (local) KPIs were set for Deans and Directors regarding gender mainstreaming, induction, workload, impacts of short-term contracts, professional development, flexible work, promoting entitlements, family friendly work hours, reporting. However, no KPIs were enumerated, no mechanism was installed for enforcing or reporting on KPIs, and no data was provided to Deans/Directors to measure progress.
  • WSU has achieved its targets at university-level, but most local-level analysis does not show significant improvement, with one significant exception (see below).
  • Key local initiative: In 2017, the Deputy Dean of the School of Computing, Engineering, and Mathematics established the ‘Western Women Transforming the Built Environment’ (WTBE) initiative, with strong support from the VC and DVC-Academic. A working group and action plan were instituted, with a focus on industry networking and role modelling, recruitment, induction, mentoring, and reshaping gender norms. The initiative saw an increase from 3 female academics to 10 and from 58 female undergraduates to 93 in the Construction Management domain.
  • Global response: Drawing on the success of the WTBE initiative, WSU has now established Equity and Diversity Working Parties (EDWPs) in every School, one combined working party for Research Institutes and on for all Divisions. These EDWPs are designed to: enable local contexts to respond to and tailor the implementation of global university-level strategies; enable local contexts to inform global equity strategies; and to learn from each other through collaborative partnerships. EDWPs are fed local data on a regular basis and formal reporting processes have been instituted, including gender equity standing items on all Executive Committees, simplified and enforceable KPIs for Deans and Directors, and annual reports from EDWPs to the VC’s Gender Equity Committee.

Case Study 2: Fixing the System (Jo Hatton)

  • Macquarie University has adopted a university-wide ‘Fix the System’ approach to diversity and inclusion. The strategy addresses both STEMM and HASS disciplines and both academic and professional staff. The ‘Fix the System’ approach seeks to address the causes of gender inequity, rather than the symptoms.
  • Data analysis indicates that there are no significant gender equity differences between STEMM and HASS disciplines at Macquarie. However, there are differences between each academic faculty and professional portfolio. For example, women represent 29% of academic staff in Macquarie’s Faculty of Science and Engineering, while the Faculty of Human Sciences, has 61% female academic staff – not only the highest female representation among STEMM disciplines, but the highest of any faculty in the university.
  • Global level: Targets have been set at organisational level. Executive Group members have individual KPIs and report to the VC annually. The VC also reports on gender equity progress and broader D&I issues to the University’s Council each year.
  • Local levels: Diversity and Inclusion committees were established across the institution in 2017, designed to address local-level issues, trends, and priorities. Each is guided my SMART action plans that have been developed in response to detailed analysis of local contexts. D&I Committees are supported by a university-level team, who provide data and help to identify priorities and recommendations. D&I Committees are encouraged to collaborate at regular ‘Gender Equity Summits’ and analysis of impact continues.

Note: an audience member raised concerns about the lack of focus or detail on cultural diversity and other intersectional factors within these case study presentations, and further expressed concern about the lack of visible cultural diversity among the facilitators. The facilitators appreciated the audience member’s comments and acknowledged that the lack of cultural diversity among presenters reflects the same lack within the NSW Regional Network. Facilitators also noted the absence of intersectional targets at case study institutions is a reflection of difficulties in collecting cultural diversity data to measure targets against, the displacement of intersectionality within SAGE and other application frameworks, and is an unfortunate representation of the slow pace at which organisations are diversifying their gender equity practice.

  1. Local/Global Responsiveness (Kieryn McKay)

Drawing from case studies presented, UTS Symposium findings, and further discussion within the NSW Regional Network, the following guidelines for successful target-setting were identified:

  • SMART targets should be evidence-based and data driven where possible
  • Regular reporting keeps progress on track
  • Multidimensional ‘Fix the System’ approaches work
  • Strong top-level leadership is essential
  • Action is needed at multiple levels of the organisation
  • Innovation needs room to move

Reflecting on the relationship between global (institution-level) strategy and local (Department/School/Faculty or organisational unit) strategies, the following was recommended:

  • Global level: requires commitment and accountability with intent and focus (especially among Senior Leadership)
  • Local level: requires capacity for ownership and individuation, underwritten by clear responsibilities and clear communication
  • Global and local strategies need to be aligned and responsive.
  • These learnings can and should be applied to the sector at large.
  1. Table Discussions

The audience was split into themed discussions aimed at generating recommendations for collective cross-institutional action and sector-wide support from relevant national bodies. The themes were:

  • The merit principle (Therese Donlevy & Lesley Hughes)
  • Staff recruitment, retention, promotion and succession planning (Kylie Owens, Jo Hatton)
  • Measuring Impact and Ensuring Accountability (Janice Aldrich-Wright, Alicia Pearce)
  • Building capacity for cultural change (Matt Pye)

An outline of each discussion and its outcome is provided in the attachment below.

Note: In response to the audience provocation around culturally diverse representation, an additional small group discussion was held with specific focus on setting intersectional targets. Recommendations arising from this discussion are included in the “Measuring Impact & Ensuring Accountability” theme below, and are marked with an asterix *.

Key outcomes: See table below.

Next steps: The SAGE NSW Regional Network will submit workshop recommendations to SAGE for consideration. All participants are encouraged to engage the SAGE NSW Regional Network in further discussions. Please contact our NSW Regional Network Coordinator, Mrs Annie Fenwicke at

Local Collective Action = what are some possibilities for cross-institutional collaboration in mitigating the barriers to gender equity targets in STEMM?

Global Sector Support = what role can SAGE or other national bodies play in providing global support for our collective actions?


Theme Local Collective Action Global Sector Support



Addressing gender bias in the concept of ‘merit’; redefining heroic models of academic achievement


Common Challenges:

–       Definitions of ‘merit’ can be influenced by gender bias

–       Legacy effect of gender bias in National Competitive Grant Schemes (e.g., NHMRC and ARC)

–       Narrow or biased definitions of ‘merit’ and ‘success’ applied in promotion and at recruitment

–       Gender pay gap is influenced by biased definitions of ‘merit’

–       Definitions of merit reward heroic models of academic achievement (as opposed to collectivity and shared achievement)


1.       Exploring an expansion of the definition of merit that considers holistic achievement and potential of the whole person and shifts focus from heroic models of academic merit toward collectivity and shared achievement. If merit is redefined, can this increase mobility across organisations?


2.       Promotions guidelines that increase emphasis on leadership and governance



1.       Drive change and advocate for more ambitious gender equity action within the National Competitive Grant Scheme frameworks (including redefining merit within these programs, anonymising grant applications to remove unconscious bias, etc.)


2.       Convene sector discussions on redefining the merit principle





Neutralising selection bias; establishing a culture of female STEMM participation; counteracting the ‘boys club’; understanding achievement relative to opportunity


Common Challenges:

–       How to attract diverse applicants

–       Mitigating bias in recruitment and selection

–       Addressing the gender pay gap

–       Mitigating bias in promotion processes

–       Recruiting and promoting diverse candidates for senior leadership roles

–       Poor understanding of ‘achievement relative to opportunity’

–       Supporting the transition from fixed-term ‘post doc’ positions to permanent ‘academic’ roles


1.       Local level application of global strategies in recruitment, including normalising female-only advertisements and active oversight of junior-level recruitment


2.       Introduce gender equity KPIs for both academic and professional recruitment, ensuring these are tied to global-level strategies and targets and that there are tools to support the achievement of these KPIs


3.       Offer visible success narratives for fixed-term post-docs transitioning to permanent academic appointments


4.       Leadership shadowing programs, including some cross-institutional and cross-industry partnerships


5.       Recognise the cycles of academic progression over the long term by partnering with industry to increase continuity of employment


1.       Facilitate industry partnerships


2.       Expand Future Leader programs, Fellowships and Laureates


3.       Facilitate sharing of innovation across the sector, including case study examples





Building an evidence-base for future strategy; bringing transparency and accountability to the sector; contextualising success


Common Challenges:

–       Availability of adequate benchmarking data to inform action

–       Measuring cultural diversity in the sector

–       Establishing real accountability for equality and inclusion

–       Clearly articulating what ‘success’ and ‘impact’ look like for gender equity

–       Setting targets that speak to culture change (not just numerical change)



1.       Data transparency at all levels (incl. pay equity)


2.       Set targets that speak to culture change (not just numerical change)


3.       Acknowledge challenges to collating cultural data and that lack of data can drive marginalisation


4.       Charge Deans and Heads of Schools with responsibility for recording cultural diversity data against targets*


5.       Hold each other to account for breaking panel pledges*


1.       Provide national STEMM workforce benchmarking data by discipline for cross-institutional comparison, including sector-wide intersectional benchmarks


2.       Require cultural diversity and intersectional considerations to be central to Silver Institutional Awards


3.       Clearly articulate examples of what ‘success’ and ‘impact’ look like for gender equity


4.       Lead a cross-institutional research project to develop recommendations for the gathering and analysis of cultural diversity data and the relevant and appropriate development of cultural diversity targets.*





Embedding capacity within our staff cohorts; navigating resistance to gender equity; laying the groundwork for ambitious and aspirational strategies


Common Challenges:

–       Setting clear expectations for behaviour and inclusion

–       Changing behaviours to address bullying & harassment

–       Building understanding and capability amongst staff (when traditional ‘diversity training’ has been found to largely be ineffective)

–       Influencing ‘up’ (e.g., shaping attitudes among managers, supervisors and executives)

–       Increasing male participation in gender equity work

–       Avoiding burnout, ‘mission fatigue’ and backlash


1.       Extend gender equity beyond the binary logic that currently dominates the sector


2.       Expand inclusive language in all policies, strategies and action plans and HR systems


3.       Apply change management practises to cultural change


4.       Be more cautious of language that marginalises male allies


5.       Raise awareness and visibility of safe spaces, champion organisations that show strong leadership on gender diversity, disability, and cultural diversity


1.       Revise SAGE application framework to properly embed intersectionality and gender diversity at the core of gender equity considerations


2.       Revise language of “Women in STEMM” etc to be more inclusive of gender diversity


3.       Partner with key organisations (e.g., Pride in Diversity) and utilise their skills and expertise more actively


4.       Ensure an intersectional approach to speakers and representatives at all conferences, seminars and events


5.       Reconsider timing of SAGE Symposium and other conferences to enable greater academic participation (i.e., do not schedule in conflict with ARC submission deadlines).