Author Identifiers

Fleur Sharafizad
ORCID: 0000-0002-2495-4381

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Business and Law

First Advisor

Professor Kerry Brown

Second Advisor

Dr Uma Jogulu

Third Advisor

Professor Maryam Omari


The continuing under-representation of female academics in senior classifications at Australian universities is widely acknowledged and documented. It has been proposed that universities fail to take advantage of the leadership skills of female academics, thereby inhibiting their organisation’s competitiveness (Airini et al., 2011). Statistics from the Australian Department of Education and Training (2018) indicate over half of full-time and fractional full-time academics are women, yet female academics constitute only a third of positions above that of Senior Lecturer across Australian universities. Substantial research has been conducted to explore the reasons behind the enduring gender inequity in academia, with a focus on the lack of women at senior classifications and in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine) faculties. Statistics indicate significant reductions in the number of female academics between midlevel classifications; this area of research is less well developed. Specifically, the decrease in the number of female academics commences between the mid-levels of academic careers (from Levels B to C, as well as C to D) and accelerates from that point forward. Mid-level promotions have been identified as key promotion levels and indicators of future career progression (Yap & Konrad, 2009). There is a crucial need to understand the reasons for the inability of women to traverse this key point in their academic careers. This study proposes that for the gender distribution across senior classifications in academia to improve, these bottlenecks identified at the levels of Lecturer (Level B) and Senior Lecturer (Level C) should be analysed and addressed.

The pipeline theory proposes that the increasing number of women entering the workforce will gradually result in an equal representation of women in leadership. However, the current gender distribution in Australian academia challenges this theory because there are presently more than enough women in academia qualified to be appointed to leadership roles, yet gender inequity remains. Persistent and continuing inequity requires a similarly determined response and it has been proposed that different and novel approaches are needed to return gender to the agenda (Kamberidou, 2010).

Much of the gender equity research in academia has focused on the under-representation of female academics in senior classifications, but it has been argued that there is a lack of research exploring drivers of the careers of female academics (Nguyen, 2013). While the identification of career inhibitors remains vital, it can be argued that simultaneously identifying those factors that have assisted female academics in their career progression can provide policymakers and universities with valuable data to guide and assist gender equity efforts further. Researchers suggest that when exploring the career outcomes of female academics, it is also imperative to simultaneously explore family outcomes (Mason et al., 2013). International research suggests that female academics make more career sacrifices for their families as well as more family sacrifices for their careers, highlighting the challenges with which female academics continue to be faced. Data regarding this important measure of gender equity are absent for the Australian academic environment.

This study’s aim was therefore to explore the inhibitors, with a focus on the identified bottlenecks, as well as the drivers and family outcomes of a career for female academics at an Australian university. To gain multiple perspectives, data for this research was drawn from chancellery members, Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) Charter Committee members, human resource professionals, and male and female academics at a public university in Australia. Owing to the exploratory nature of this research and the need for thick and rich data, a two-phased, multi-method qualitative approach was adopted, consisting of nine semi-structured interviews with senior stakeholders at the case study institution (CSI) in Study 1, and 47 “draw, write, reflect” (DWR) sessions with male and female academics in Study 2. DWR is a method specifically designed for this study, adapted from arts-based methods intended for research involving children. The aim of this study was to obtain data that may not lend itself to verbal expression, and the arts offer researchers an opportunity to retrieve experiences that may otherwise be challenging to obtain (Eisner, 2006). For this study, DWR involved asking respondents to draw their careers and associated experiences on an A4 sheet of paper, specifically including any inhibitors and drivers. Because of the novelty of the method adopted, this study includes a review of DWR with the academics who participated in the study, as well as the researcher, to assess the method’s validity, reliability and effectiveness in obtaining data.

The study explored the careers of female academics through the lenses of role congruity theory (RCT), self-efficacy theory and attribution theory. For the purposes of this thesis, the roles referred to will be gender roles, which propose that female academics are likely to act in accordance, rather than deviate from, their prescribed female gender role. Gender incongruity is likely to be perceived negatively by others and may be punished through performance devaluation or harassment (Eagly & Karau, 2002). Confidence has been identified as a high-status characteristic for men (Moss-Racusin et al., 2010), while women are expected to be shy and humble (Prentice & Carranza, 2002). Framed by selfefficacy theory, women’s lack of expressed or perceived confidence may contribute to their lack of progression to senior academic classifications. Lastly, attribution theory, in combination with RCT, proposes that female academics are likely to attribute their lack of career progression to themselves while attributing positive career outcomes to external factors, such as luck.

Thematic analysis of the data highlighted that female academics have significantly different career experiences from their male colleagues. While some of this study’s findings substantiate contemporary knowledge, others, owing to the inclusion of multiple perspectives, offer unique insights into the career experiences of female academics in Australia. Perspectives and narratives obtained from senior stakeholders were utilised to provide an organisational perspective of gender inequity, while the narratives of male academics served to compare their career experiences with those provided by female academics.

The data identified several inhibitors of the career progression of female academics. Gender roles continue to influence career and family decisions and can result in female academics having to choose between a career or a family. Some women in the sample had reconsidered their career aspirations as a result of caring responsibilities, while others had postponed or decided not to have children in order to pursue their careers. The female gender role and the ideal academic role create incongruity in the lives of female academics, who often must shift between these two competing roles. Female academics did not report structural inhibitors of their career progression, and several female academics, who did not have caring responsibilities, had progressed their careers on a par with male academics. RCT posits that men and women are more likely to act in accordance with the male breadwinner model, which prioritises the male career. The female academics in the sample appeared to have accepted this situation and, rather than viewing the structure as inhibiting, viewed their inability to meet this standard, as a result of outside responsibilities, as the problem. A significant finding of this study related to the identification of a distinct “holding pattern” amongst female academics at academic Level B. Seven of the eight female academics at this level indicated that they would not be pursuing a promotion in the near future, suggesting that they will be employed at this level for an extended period. Inhibitors specific to the career progression of female academics, particularly at Levels B and C, were, amongst others, identified as a lack of confidence, academic housework, careful crafting of a work/life balance, fear of work/life conflict, career interruptions and caring responsibilities.

As a result of the multi-level approach of this study, several drivers of the career progression of female academics at CSI were unearthed. While no societal drivers were identified, the organisational drivers included leadership, the Athena SWAN Charter, the organisational culture, and promotion and recruitment practices. Female academics reported that individual factors such as individual characteristics, family support, informal mentoring and a love of the job had driven their career progression.

In terms of family outcomes, this study found that female academics in the sample were more likely to be divorced, less likely to have children, more likely to struggle with maintaining a work/life balance and more likely to experience tension with their partner regarding working hours than were their male colleagues. This finding indicates that career outcomes are only one aspect of gender equity. A focus on the number of female academics at senior classifications does not convey the full picture of female academics’ career narratives. Academic careers can come at a personal cost to female academics, and, despite the flexibility of academic work, it remains difficult to combine a successful career with caring responsibilities.

This research makes several contributions. Firstly, the introduction, employment and review of a novel data collection method—draw, write, reflect—extends contemporary methodology knowledge and provides a clear procedure for researchers interested in employing this method in their research. Secondly, the identification and exploration of the previously unexplored bottlenecks in the academic pipeline revealed that a significant number of female academics remain in stasis at Level B, a situation identified in this research as forming a holding pattern. A possible explanation for this finding, when viewed through the lens of RCT, may be that Level B is congruent with the female gender, but to advance would create incongruity and is therefore less likely to occur. The identification of specific inhibitors contributing to this bottleneck were identified and presented. A third contribution of this study lies in the presentation of drivers of the career progression of female academics that have resulted in an improved gender distribution at CSI. The findings regarding positive strategies for career progression were related to mentoring and changes to recruitment and selection practices and can be utilised as a template for other universities working towards gender equity. Lastly, knowledge about the family outcomes of an academic career for female academics in Australia has thus far been absent in the literature. This study argues that this aspect is an important measure of gender inequity, and it has therefore been included in this research. The findings indicate that female academics have significantly different family outcomes from their male colleagues, with more female academics reporting being divorced and childless. The data obtained in this study can contribute to current knowledge about the careers of female academics and pragmatically to improving career opportunities for female academics in Australia, as well as internationally.

Access Note

Access to this thesis is embargoed until 20 October 2023.

Available for download on Friday, October 20, 2023


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