Kerri-Lee Krause and Marcia Devlin were just a little apprehensive at the recent Universities Australia conference.

As co-chairs of the Universities Australia Executive Women Group (UAEW), they had organised a lunch at which they would launch new best practice recruitment guidelines aimed at boosting the number of women in senior executive positions across the sector.

How many people would show up? A modest number, they reckoned, somewhere between 20 and 30 maybe.

They were wrong. The room was crowded with more than 200 women and men, eager to hear what they had to say about this new push towards gender equity across the sector.

That crowd, which included many senior university leaders, stands as symbol for the new momentum for change now palpable in universities.

“People in universities are really busy, there’s a lot going on,” says Devlin, former Associate Deputy Vice-Chancellor Education, now Adjunct Professor at RMIT University, Melbourne.

“It’s almost a full-time job trying to keep up with all the funding and policy changes. But in that context, people are paying serious attention to gender equity. They want to see a significant change towards a greater representation of women.”

Krause, DVCA at La Trobe University, agrees. “It now goes way beyond interest – right through from the governance bodies, chancellors and vice-chancellors.”

She points out that, for example, La Trobe Vice-Chancellor John Dewar has signed up to the Male Champions of Change group – “not everyone has done that, but we can certainly see evidence of VCs leading the way. There’s a lot of enthusiasm for this”.

The pair, appointed to the volunteer role as co-chairs of UAEW in 2016 for a two-year period, are passionate proponents for a systemic change in universities that will enable increasing numbers of women to step-up into hitherto male-dominated senior jobs.

Working on the guideline project mostly in their “spare time” with executive recruitment firm Fisher Leadership, they were driven by a desire to see greater numbers of women fulfilling their leadership potential.

Australia’s first woman VC was Professor Di Yerbury, appointed to lead Macquarie University in 1987. Today around one third of Australia’s VCs are women.

Their goal, however, is not just about enabling more women to become VCs.

It is also intended to bring about leadership diversity across all senior levels including an equitable shake-up in the composition of governing councils and key committees.

But their role is not to monitor progress. “We are enablers, to help universities make gains in gender parity; universities are taking responsibility for monitoring themselves,” says Krause.

“We want to foster conversations about where we are at as a sector and how we might improve.”

Krause tells CMM that while short-term actions can and should be taken, the guidelines are “all about a long-haul game” to effect sector-wide change.

“These guidelines really do need to be part of a systemic change to address systemic inequality,” she says.

The guide offers practical advice for universities, including drawing up recruitment guidelines, job specifications for new roles, parity in representation of males and females on interview panels, and equity in recruitment processes.

“We wanted to develop a very practical resource that would help university leaders and human resources teams to achieve our shared goal of seeing more women in leadership roles.”

Devlin tells CMM that a major motivating factor is to enable many more women to fulfil their potential, and so to help universities perform more effectively.

“It’s been proven again and again that when there are women on the senior team and on the board, then the company does better. In our case universities would do better,” she says.

“One could argue that if you don’t have women on your board, your council, and on key committees, and if you don’t have women on your senior executive team, then arguably you are doing your university a disservice because you will have better outcomes when you have more women in these roles.

“You are not doing your job properly if you haven’t got gender equity. It’s not just that having more senior women is the right thing to do, or a nice thing to do – your job is to make the university effective.

“It will be more effective, according to the research, if you have more women working for you at senior levels.”

Krause and Devlin say there is much goodwill and determination from senior people in the sector to effect change, and many universities have been “self regulating” – including working with the government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency and committing to the SAGE Athena Swan Principles. Universities must also submit workforce composition data to the government.

Krause and Devlin are keen to point out that gender equity in universities is “everyone’s business”.

“It’s not just a piece of work that females have to attend to – we need everyone working on this together,” they say.

* Universities that wish to submit a best practice recruitment case study to supplement the guidelines can find contact details here.