Episode 18: Gender equity at Western Sydney University

In 2005, Professor Janice Aldrich-Wright had been working on the Athena Swan Charter in the UK and was impressed with the impact. Joining SAGE at Western Sydney University 10 years later as the Academic Lead was a natural fit for her. “It was an opportunity to empower us to do even more, which is what we hope we’ve done,” she says.

Headshot of Janice Aldrich-Wright.
Western Sydney University’s SAGE Academic Lead, Professor Janice Aldrich-Wright.

Western Sydney University (WSU) achieved their SAGE Athena Swan Bronze Award in 2019. But even before joining SAGE, WSU came from a place of strength in the diversity space. Their action plan complements the University’s existing policies, programs and initiatives that promote gender equity for staff and students. For the last three years, the University has maintained their position as one of the top 3 universities in the world for gender equality, according to the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings. WSU has also held a WGEA Employer of Choice for Gender Equality citation for 18 years.

“I’ve been at all of those stations,” Professor Aldrich-Wright says. “I’ve been a casual employee. I’ve also been in a shared position. I’ve been on contract, I’ve had small kids; I’ve tried to balance it all.”

 I wanted to be part of a movement that instigated, permeated, embedded gender equity and diversity objectives across the sector.

Professor Janice Aldrich-Wright

In 2015, WSU set a minimum target of 40% women amongst shortlisted applicants for academic STEMM positions. They introduced a new method to ensure independent assessment of gender neutrality in job descriptions, selection criteria and interview questions. The University also mandated a minimum requirement for women’s representation on selection panels and trained panel chairs in ethical recruitment practices. “That’s helped some more women into WSU,” says Professor Aldrich-Wright.

In 2020, WSU was not only meeting those targets across the board but exceeding them. “Across 2018 to 2019, 57% percent of our shortlisted candidates for Level E positions in our STEMM disciplines were female,” she says.

Now, WSU is conducting a more comprehensive gender equity impact assessment. The University is looking to identify potential impacts of recent organisational and change processes in their workforce and how these have affected the University’s gender equity and diversity profile. They are also hoping to learn more about staff perceptions of the impacts of COVID-19 on their career development.

To learn more about WSU’s SAGE Athena Swan action plan and ongoing initiatives in gender equity and diversity, listen to episode 18. You can also subscribe to Think Difference on Google PodcastsApple Podcasts and Spotify.


The following transcript has been edited for readability.

00:03 Signi Livingstone-Peters
In 2005, Professor Janice Aldrich-Wright had already experienced the impact of the Athena Swan model in the UK. When Athena Swan came to Australia, she jumped at the chance to become involved. Ten years later, in 2015, Professor Aldrich-Wright was appointed to be the SAGE Academic Lead at Western Sydney University.

In this episode of Think Difference, we’ll chat about Western Sydney’s Bronze Award, their SAGE action plan, the progress they’ve made and the impact of their new method that works to ensure gender equity in job descriptions.

Hi Professor Aldrich-Wright, welcome to Think Difference. Your background is in bioinorganic chemistry, am I correct?

00:41 Janice Aldrich-Wright
That’s correct, I’m a bioinorganic chemist and my research focus has been to design better anticancer prodrugs.

00:47 Signi Livingstone-Peters
So how did you become active in the gender equity and diversity space?

00:51 Janice Aldrich-Wright
Well, I’ve been working for the university for many years, and I was approached to become the academic lead for SAGE. What made me really consider that as being an option – I’ve been involved with people in the UK who’d been working on the Athena Swan Charter; I’d seen the changes that had happened there, and I was really impressed with the considerations that they were making.

I’ve got to say that I’m also the mother of a daughter who’s a scientist, and I’ve had a lot of talented young women that I’ve taught over the years. I wanted them, and any of those women that follow them, to have freedom that they could rise and be anything they wanted to be, given their talents and their aspirations.

So it was sort of like trying to make sure that that was available for them, ’cause I know I had some sticking points in my career – things that impeded my movement forward – and I wanted to be part of a movement that instigated, permeated, embedded gender equity and diversity objectives across the sector. Not just a university, not just the university sector as a whole, but sort of stand out as a beacon to the rest of the community.

I was working with – I was experiencing Athena Swan in the UK in 2005 or so. I was seeing it happen there, so when it came to Australia, I was really keen for us to be involved. One of my colleagues was looking for a new project, and I said “You should go and do that.” I said this would be great.

She happened to leave the university, and the next minute I know, I’m at a conference in Hawaii and I get a phone call saying, could you be the academic lead for SAGE? And it’s like, you know, I’m in Hawaii. It’s just, you know, this wonderful opportunity. I couldn’t say yes fast enough.

While I’ve been at Western Sydney, I started as a casual demonstrator with really small children, one was under one. I got a contract which was a shared contract. Then I’ve got another contract where I was a research assistant for a while.

While I was doing that, I thought, you know what? I think I could do this PhD thing. And so I took on the PhD while I was doing that.

Just towards the end of my PhD, I was offered a position as an academic aide, which I accepted. That was at Campbelltown, which is the campus I currently work at. From that time till now, I’ve stepped on every rung on the ladder on the way up to E.

From an equity perspective, I thought I also had a lot to bring because I’d been at all of those stations. I’ve been a casual employee. I’ve also been in a shared position. I’ve been on contract. I’ve had small kids. Well, I’ve tried to balance at all, and so I thought I could bring those experiences to bear and perhaps some of the sticking points.

I’m only one lens and I know that there are several others, so we’re really lucky at Western Sydney that we have a wonderful community of women and men who contribute to our SAGE.

Today’s just an example of how far we’ve come. Today, we had our very first women’s conference at Western Sydney and that women’s conference had about 270 women-identifying staff who attended. When I first arrived, I wouldn’t have thought that there’d be a women conference.

04:05 Signi Livingstone-Peters
Could you tell me a little bit about Western Sydney’s SAGE journey? Why did Western Sydney University decide to join SAGE?

04:12 Janice Aldrich-Wright
I should sort of lay the foundation because I’m sort of standing on the shoulders of giants. Before we started SAGE, we already had 14 WGEA citations and we were an Employer of Choice.

The Vice-Chancellor is a named champion. He’s an ambassador and had done that long before we start SAGE.

We had a Senior Women’s Group which had been well-established. We had an Office of Equity and Diversity, which held a dedicated, high-skilled senior project officer in that role.

In 2015, we already had a gender equity strategy and action plan. It had already been mapped. There were clear targets and strategies, and it continued to improve.

Now, this is before we even signed up. So you can imagine, as I said, we’ve actually come from a place of strength, which is really an important thing to acknowledge in the Western Sydney collective.

For us, going into SAGE as the initiative was a no-brainer. It was an opportunity to empower us to do even more, which is what we hope we’ve done.

The SAGE process has certainly helped us cohere our gender equity strategies across the university. It’s allowed us to identify some of our shortcomings and, more clearly, to articulate our specific vision for promoting gender equity in STEMM specifically, but across the university as a whole.

Being part of the national movement has been a really enjoyable and wonderful process. We’ve been bolstered in our momentum by our colleagues at other universities, so we haven’t been doing this alone. We’ve learned so much from the expertise, and we’ve borrowed a lot of strength and know-how from those colleagues. It’s been a collective enthusiasm. Our colleagues from other universities have been fantastic.

One of our strengths at Western is how integrated our gender equity and diversity work is across the organisation. So you can see where we had a number of strengths. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that we built upon that list, in my mind. It gives credit where credit is due and it was certainly happening before I stepped into the role.

The responsibility for delivering the SAGE Action Plan is embedded in every portfolio, from top level oversight from our Vice-Chancellor’s Gender Equity Committee.

When we received the Bronze Award, our major action items was to formalise an Equity and Diversity Working Party. They’re in our divisions, our schools and our research institutes. Now, we have more than 100 staff involved in this initiative.

It allows us to develop a more locally responsive approach to our gender equity work across university. They not only help us ensure that there’s local implementation of gender equity policies and practices, but they provide insight about the lived experience of the staff and their localised challenges. They help keep us informed and help to shape the broader gender equity statements for the university.

We also made strategic use of the Vice-Chancellor’s Gender Equity Fund to support our research projects and to inspire new initiatives in key areas of need. This is our fifth year of being funded by the Vice-Chancellor’s Gender Equity Committee (or Fund) and we’ve spent over $175,000 on 29 projects over those years.

The fund actively invests in our commitment to academic and professional staff, to gender equity work across university, and helps us to harness the exceptional expertise of our colleagues.

We have a great wealth of gender equity experts within the university. I was amazed when we did a deep dive. The recommendations that come out of these projects are reviewed by the Vice-Chancellor and they’re implemented on a priority basis.

Two projects that were recently funded are led by the director of our Diversity and Human Rights Research Centre and the director of Sexualities and Genders Research Group.

One project reviewed the university staff’s understanding of trans and gender diversity, which is a really important aspect of the overall diversity question.

The other looked at our staff and how they viewed the experience of intersectional advantage and disadvantage. These projects were commissioned in recognition of the fact that we need to work harder to ensure that gender equity is fully inclusive.

To that end, we’ve recently reviewed the terms of reference of our Vice-Chancellor’s Gender Equity Committee to ensure that they’re fully encompassing gender diversity and that the committee reflects that membership.

There’s also a subgroup of the Academic Committee that has begun a comprehensive gender diversity review of all organisational policy.

We are working towards ensuring that the new queer staff network, Rainbow Western is embedded in every key stakeholder group for our evolving gender equity work.

Lastly, we have just recently convened a gender equity diversity data working party. I think you’ll know that data is one of the cornerstones, one of the absolute central parts that we need.

We have a wide range of stakeholders, not only to ensure that we are carefully and responsibly managing our staff diversity data, but also to establish a set of principles that will guarantee that all staff data collection (be it for HR purposes, internal analysis or academic research) is driven by a genuine desire to improve the workplace experience of our highly diverse staff cohort.

There are many successes that I could mention. Approximately half of all internal research grants at Western go to STEMM women and two of our flagship grants – our Career Interruption grant and our Women’s Fellowship – are designed specifically to tackle gender inequity.

Our revised academic promotions processes are proving to be extremely effective, especially for progressing STEMM female academics to Level C. We are revising this process even further to maximise our gender equity outcomes.

Our Western Women Transforming the Built Environment initiative supports career development for female academics in a heavily male-dominated field. It has quickly become business-as-usual for the School of Engineering, Design and Built Environment. It’s moving forward in a very impressive rate.

Our DVC for Indigenous Leadership has been doing fantastic work as well. We’re partnering with her to develop new, targeted initiatives for female students in male-dominated areas, such as our new Indigenous Engineering Aspire internship.

We are now in the midst of aligning our original action plan with our newly identified Cygnet priority areas, and believe that this would help us to focus our work in meaningful ways in the coming years.

What I suppose was surprising to me (although I should have been expecting it) has been the ongoing and strong support of the Vice-Chancellor Professor Barney Glover, and our SAGE sponsor, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President (Research, Enterprise and International) Professor Deborah Sweeney. They have been amazing.

11:19 Signi Livingstone-Peters
Part of Western Sydney’s Athena [Swan] Bronze action plan includes engaging the STEMM student body in SAGE activity and increasing the visibility of role models for female students in the School of Computing, Engineering and Mathematics.

Can you talk me through the outcomes of this approach over the past couple years, and in your own opinion, why are role models in higher education and institutions important?

11:39 Janice Aldrich-Wright
We’ve had some really impressive women in engineering. They have led from the front by creating cohorts of students so that they can actually build cohesive groups with one another. These senior women have been there to give them advice and give them direction.

It’s a catchphrase: if you can’t see, you can’t do. So if they can’t see a senior woman leading in engineering or mathematics, it makes it less likely that they believe they can aspire to that.

I would hope that what they dream, they can believe they can be. But it takes a lot of hope and a lot of inspiration, I suppose, for students to see or to realise their dreams.

When you see a person who’s vibrant, who’s good at what they do, who’s willing to engage you in a conversation about your area of interest (particularly if you’re in computing, mathematics and some of the sciences), I think that inspires young women to say, “I want to be like her” and “I want to give back”.

I think if you talk to these women – and that’s sort of the most surprising thing – they often had someone who did that for them. It doesn’t mean that there was always a woman. It may have been a man in some instances, but there was someone who was interested in guiding them.

12:56 Signi Livingstone-Peters
You’re a woman in STEMM yourself. Did you have a role model like that?

13:01 Janice Aldrich-Wright
I have reached out to colleagues over the years. I didn’t have anyone when I was in the early stages of my career, but we did end up with a Dean of one of the science schools, Liz Deane, who was a professor in biology.

She was quite inspiring: she had kids, she had a great research career, she was a Dean; she was doing it all. You could only be impressed by not only that, but her willingness to chat to you about things, willingness to engage and help you.

Jann Conroy was also another one at Western Sydney. Jann was a wonderful character. Her laugh was inspiring just in itself.

When things were going amiss, she’d say, “Don’t worry about them, just get on with it. Don’t worry about it! You know? That’s in the past. Move on, look at the next thing that you can do that’s going to get you where you want to go.”

She was very helpful in telling me, “Look, you know, hold off. Don’t take that job right now. Try and do this one. Focus on your career, focus on your research and then look at other things to do.” So, there was some good advice.

I also say to my students, when you’re being mentored, you’re meant to be a little bit promiscuous. You need to have role models that each have a different part of your career process.

I always describe it as: you might have half a dozen friends. The friends you go to the opera with may not be the person that you go to the football or you go shopping with. There’d be someone different, and I think when you’re choosing a mentor, different mentors have different attributes.

You interact with them to engage those attributes. There’ll be some that bleed over, but it’s sort of a really good idea to have many. Even our early career researchers – when they come on board, we always advise them to try and choose three people to interact with as they start, as they go.

14:55 Signi Livingstone-Peters
The application also mentioned targeting female STEMM recruitment. What methods have you identified and actioned in this area?

How did you socialise this approach to build, support and attract interests? Do you have any lessons that you would share with other institutions?

15:09 Janice Aldrich-Wright
This is one of the advantages of having a whole-of-sector group or colleagues within the team that we can talk to, because not all of us can do the experiment. We can only sometimes learn from other people’s outcomes.

Now, we’ve been working to improve our gender equity in recruitment for many years.

In 2015, there was a set of recruitment targets for a minimum 40% female shortlisted for academic STEMM positions at Western Sydney. We introduced the Hay job evaluation method to ensure independent assessment of gender and neutrality in job descriptions, selection criteria and interview questions.

We redoubled our efforts to attract strong female candidates and we mandated a minimum requirement of female representation on selection panels. Our panel chairs are trained in ethical recruitment practises and that’s helped get some more women into Western Sydney.

By 2020, we were meeting with the shortlisting targets across the board and, in many cases, exceeding them. Across 2018 to 2019, 57% of our shortlisted candidates for Level E positions in our STEMM disciplines were female.

Before the pandemic, we were in the process of intensifying our efforts even further by applying to Fair Work for an exemption to identify female-only positions in targeted areas, implementation of a blind recruitment trial in one of our schools, introducing a random panel membership selection and developing a gender equity-focused employee value proposition. But the pandemic has disrupted our progress. Like most higher education institutions in Australia, we have had to limit recruitment for the past 18 months.

We are now in the process of reconciling our challenging staff profile due to the financial impacts of the pandemic and our Vice-Chancellor’s Gender Equity Committee will be making recommendations for how we might overcome the loss of female talent in specific areas.

The lessons that have been learnt from this is, most of us working in this space are probably aware that the legacy effect of gender inequity in the STEMM disciplines means that we have a limited pool of experienced senior academic women to recruit from. So, any work in recruitment needs to be coupled with robust and targeted work in career development to support the women already working in male-dominated fields to advance their careers.

17:41 Signi Livingstone-Peters
Can you give me some examples of how Western Sydney has considered gender and intersectionality in its approach to COVID-19?

17:49 Janice Aldrich-Wright
I think every institution is looking to find out. We’re looking to see what our demographics looks like after the dust has settled. I know that early on in the pandemic, our Director of Equity, [Diversity & Wellbeing], Michelle Falconer recognised how important this was.

To draw on the incredible expertise across the sector at this time, she and our SAGE project coordinator reached out to senior colleagues at various institutions to establish a community of practice, to share strategies and advice of how to raise awareness around the emerging gendered impacts in a context where our own institutions were under incredible pressure.

The Joint Sector Position Statement grew out of that group. It was conceived as a mechanism for drawing explicit commitment from our executive to maintain gender equity as a central priority. It recognised the power in making that collective commitment for the entire sector.

We now have 17 universities signed up as signatories to the statement. Representatives from these universities meet quarterly to contribute sharing strategies, resources, ideas. Western continues to coordinate that effort.

At Western, we have taken our commitment to the statement very seriously. For example, we immediately increased the frequency of our Vice-Chancellor’s Gender [Equity Committee] meetings to every three weeks in the second half of 2020, so that we could review and respond to emerging and gendered impacts as quickly as possible.

We’ve introduced a COVID-19 impact framework for academic promotions. We have broadened access to our Career Interruption Research Grants for those hardest hit by the COVID-19 disruptions.

But our university has been particularly impacted by the most recent lockdown. Six of our campuses are currently in LGAs of concern, which means large numbers of our staff and students are under considerable strain. For this reason, we have been highly responsive and practical in our efforts to support staff through this period.

Our Dean of Medicine, Professor Annemarie Hennessy, is now considered our Chief Medical Officer and she speaks to health-related matters at our fortnightly Vice-Chancellor’s webinars. Several members of our senior executive meet and speak at these events, and they stay online until every staff question that can be answered is answered. These webinars are now live captioned as well to make sure that any of our hearing-impaired staff are able to fully participate in real time.

Recently, the university committed considerable resources to our schools to increase casual staffing during this extended lockdown period. This is designed to provide teaching and marking relief to staff with increased caring responsibilities and those with health issues that are being impacted, or those who otherwise need more flexibility to manage their current circumstances.

It also has obvious mutual benefits to our female-dominated casual staff. The School of Education has developed a suite of resources for staff that are engaged in home-schooling, and they are currently holding a series of webinars for that purpose, which are recorded and have a dedicated email for staff who seek further advice and support.

Our Indigenous staff have also been especially impacted. Their increased health risk has meant longer term home-schooling and considerable concern for elders in the community. Our DVC Indigenous [Leadership] has been directly supporting and coordinating care for our Indigenous staff and the communities through this time.

Staff at the School of Humanities and Arts have been partnered with local media to interpret and translate key health messages to our multilingual, multicultural community.

Western also has the highest number of [students from] low socioeconomic background of any university in Australia. At the start of the pandemic, we established a Student Assistance Fund to support domestic and onshore international students experiencing financial hardship during COVID-19.

A senior executive donated 20% of their salaries to this fund. The remainder of our staff regularly donate what they can and the university matches those contributions. So far, we have provided more than $2.3 million in emergency funds for rent and housing assistance, grocery vouchers, technology for remote learning, for 2000 of our students.

We know that many of the ongoing impacts of COVID are still emerging. We are now beginning a more comprehensive gender equity impact assessment that we hope will identify potential impacts of recent organisational and change processes in our workforce and the impact on the gender equity and diversity profile; assess staff perceptions of short-, medium- and long-term impacts of COVID disruptions on their career developments; and develop short-, medium- and long-term recommendations to mitigate identified gendered and intersectional impacts.

Importantly, we have also funded 2 new research projects to specifically assess the impacts on female HDRs and casual staff.

22:57 Signi Livingstone-Peters
How did Western Sydney know that it needed to make targeted changes to the way that it supports its Indigenous staff?

What are some of the actions that have been or are being implemented, and what kind of impacts are you hoping to achieve with those? Could you share some of those outcomes and impacts you’ve observed so far?

23:14 Janice Aldrich-Wright
Well, Western Sydney’s campuses are situated within the most culturally diverse region in Australia. We have the largest Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community in Australia. Our social responsibility is to engage, support our Indigenous community wherever possible, and this is absolutely clear.

While our internal staff surveys in 2018 showed us that our Indigenous staff responded really well, one figure jumped out at us: Indigenous staff were less likely to feel involved.

This was highly concerning to us. If our Indigenous staff don’t feel that they are able to contribute to the inner workings of the university, to influence how decisions are made, to participate in its direction and purpose, then we are falling short in a very important way.

Our DVC Indigenous Leadership, Professor Michelle Trudgett has really changed the landscape here. She has been on a mission to reimagine what stakeholdership for Indigenous staff really means. She established an Indigenous Staff Network and Indigenous Research Network, both of which she leads with some vigour.

We now have an annual Indigenous Staff Conference and an Indigenous staff development day, and we have reestablished our elders committee. She developed/garnered support for an ambitious new Indigenous strategy with employment targets that seeks to outpace our local Indigenous representation by 2025.

We are well on our way. We now have six Indigenous staff in senior roles at the university, up from two in 2018. This includes a newly appointed Director of Indigenous Teaching and Learning and a Director of Indigenous Research who will be working to ensure that First Nations perspectives are embedded across the core aspects of the university operation.

Professor Trudgett was initially imported as the PVC Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education, Strategy and Consultation in 2019. Truly a mouthful, but the university only this week converted her position to a DVC role, which makes us only the second university in the country to have an Indigenous representative at that level.

The university is not only rewarding Michelle’s success in driving that portfolio, but has elevated the portfolio itself to DVC status, demonstrating how much we are committed to making meaningful impact for Indigenous people in higher education and across our Western Sydney community. We can’t overstate how significant this is for us.

25:42 Signi Livingstone-Peters
What are your hopes and dreams for the future of gender equity at Western Sydney University?

25:48 Janice Aldrich-Wright
Look, I’d like to see – you know – there’s an equal proportion or that the position that you hold isn’t influenced by anything other than your skills, your talent, your drive. Whether you’re a woman, male or on the spectrum, whether you’re from any background, that you know your dreams are obtainable, that your aspirations are realisable.

I think that’s what everybody wishes. We have so many talented individuals; you want them to reach their peak and to blossom. All they need sometimes is a hand up, for you to part the curtain and say “Hello, there you were all this time, come on in.”

We hope to see in the future where inclusive gender equity is structurally embedded in all aspects of our workplace experiences, and it is understood as a core principle of the university and across the broader community and sector.

26:40 Signi Livingstone-Peters
That was Professor Janice Aldrich-Wright. If you’d like to join the discussion on gender equity and diversity, tweet at us @SciGenderEquity.

You can also subscribe to our podcast via Apple Podcasts or Spotify. Stay tuned for more stories on gender equity and diversity. See you next time.