Practices, not perceptions or percentages – Arguing for ethnographic methods in Higher Education gender research

Peter Lang
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Ethnographic Borders and Boundaries: Permeability, Plasticity and Possibilities, 2021, pp. 331-338
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In Australia, the Gender Pay Gap – 15.3% - is surprisingly high for a developed country, and is decreasing very slowly. Within our university, there are a number of initiatives aimed at decreasing inequality, but many of these focus on staff career progression, and are focused on disciplines where there is a significant gender imbalance. Statistics on these initiatives are reported, and the university has been recognised as an Employer of Choice for Women. However, our ethnographic based research indicates that gender discrimination is embedded in everyday higher education teaching and learning practices, regardless of discipline, and that this unconscious discriminatory behaviour goes unnoticed by students and teachers, regardless of gender. This paper will show how ethnographic methods have uncovered behaviours that were surprising to the researchers, and would never have been uncovered in surveys, interviews or statistics. Most importantly, our results were shared with our student participants, who were as surprised as we were. One of the findings has had significant impact on both students and staff in demonstrating – in the parlance of students - that unconscious bias “is a thing” and has allowed them to recognise their own unconscious biases in a way that is persuasive, rather than antagonistic. When students recognised their biases, they were receptive to learning new inclusive practices, and eliminating practices which were self-sabotaging. This paper will argue that the most prevalent gender research methods may blur the nature of the gender discrimination in the higher education context, and that ethnographic methods will give us better visibility of unconscious gendered behaviours, which may contribute to discriminatory outcomes, both within the university and the workplace.
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