Spotlight On: Comparing Gender in Tertiary Institutions and Development with Joyce Wu

Joyce Wu and Kayla Lochner

Broadly, what is your research focussed on?

Gender equity continues to grow as a key priority in higher education. This can be seen in a global push for increasing gender equity in student numbers, in leadership and teaching positions, and in executive management. Likewise, it continues to be prioritised in development: we see this in gender programming, the disaggregation of data and in global commitments such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

These priorities are framing my current research: how the development and higher education sectors integrate gender equity at the institutional level. It fascinates me that, despite decades of gender mainstreaming, neither sectors have “got” gender. At the institutional level, we have global documents such as Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), universities and research institutes in Australia are now committed to Athena Swan gender equity accreditation, and the sectors release countless reports and toolkits, yet progress remains slow and uneven.

This research draws on my work experience as a feminist and gender specialist in both fields. As part of my research, I undertook fieldwork in the United States, hosted by Kansas State University, as part of my Fulbright Senior Fellowship, to understand how gender issues are understood and translated into practices and policies within universities.

I hope the research will have tangible outcomes and suggestions on how institutions can do better in this space. This will have profound implications for implementing gender equity practices. At a theoretical level, I hope to understand the structural and individual barriers that make gender equity such a challenge for large institutions.

What is your current focus at the moment? Is there anything specific you are investigating?

I am currently developing a book manuscript based on the gender equity comparative study I conducted in the US, through Routledge. Previously, I have also published a book titled Involving Men in Ending Violence against Women (2018). I am also working on a number of research projects: Indonesian Child, Early and Forced Marriages (CEFM); a gender and water research project using Pakistan as case study; and recently, I collaborated on a paper on mainstreaming gender in water modelling with ANU and CSIRO colleagues, which was published by Environmental Modelling & Software.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 has put a a hold on a Department of International Development (DFID) project on anti-trafficking and women’s empowerment in South Asia and the Middle East. I enjoy working across this multitude of projects as gender remains at the forefront of so many global issues.

What is most important to you when working with your participants and partner organisations?

Drawing on my experience as a feminist and as a practitioner, I believe that theories and practices must come from case studies that highlight people’s stories and voices, especially the marginalised and the vulnerable. My philosophy and practice have always been about, “Who has a story and is not being heard?”. An example is my current research on the failures of gender integration in the development sector, and more broadly, the slew of initiatives to make higher education and research institutes more equitable and diverse. We often hear the end results, the success stories and the glossy reports intended for donors and alumni, but I am more interested in the stories and experiences of the inside activists and those who are affected the most, yet their voices are left out.

Are there any key insights you would like to share with us?

The comparative study on gender equity is still ongoing. Anecdotally, I have had feedback that, after our conversations and report on research findings, people have become more aware and thoughtful about gender mainstreaming. This feedback also highlighted how institutions and individuals are approaching gender mainstreaming in more meaningful ways  rather than as a donor-driven or compliance exercise. My research largely focuses on institutional and structural reforms, so changes are the cumulative efforts of everyone involved. In my experience, too often gender mainstreaming is relegated to female workers or researchers (much like housework!).

Global development as a discipline exists in an interesting space between being an academic topic (impact is measured by grants, publications and citations) and practitioner-based (social and policy impact). I think, especially for early career academics, it is useful to strive for a balance in both – and most importantly, ensure that your ideas and theories can be easily communicated to a diverse range of audience.

What are the next key priorities for you? Are you looking for any collaborators?

Next key priority? Getting my book manuscript completed by the end of the year whilst working from home (Canberra) and juggling with online teaching!

I think one of the key challenges brought about by the pandemic, is how research methodologies – especially for a qualitative researcher like myself – will be transformed due to social distancing and public health considerations. This will greatly affect how I conduct the next phase of the project.

I am always keen for collaboration on new projects, and would love to explore the possibilities of an ARC in relation to COVID-19 and its impact on gender and development.