Cai Wilkinson of Deakin University is an Associate Professor of International Relations with particular focus on LGBTQ human rights. After studying the experiences of LGBTQ international students in Australia, she joined Deakin’s self-assessment team to understand and contextualise the LBGTQ experience within a gender equity perspective.

Originally from the UK, Wilkinson was familiar with the Athena Swan framework. “While I hadn’t been actively involved with it in the UK, I saw [joining the self-assessment team] as a really good opportunity to contribute, particularly at the Bronze Award level. Starting the conversation and having the data means the problems can’t be ignored anymore. It was a really attractive proposition.”

Associate Professor Cai Wilkinson. Photograph: Supplied

Although Athena Swan began as an initiative for academic women in STEMM, its scope has expanded over time to include staff and students from any discipline in higher education and research. The current framework also supports professional and technical staff.

“The social sciences can give us a space to begin to reflect, interrogate and undo assumptions,” says Wilkinson. “That’s going to be crucial for generating the organisational change that we want to see.”

To achieve that organisational change, Wilkinson says that there needs to be more flexibility and inclusion of other gender identities when setting targets for equity and diversity initiatives. “Even with a 50:50 approach, we still have a huge problem,” she says.

“We’re assuming that the experiences of all men and women are interchangeable or homogenous, rather than recognising the complexity of that.”

If done well, Wilkinson says that actions aimed at benefitting non-binary staff and students will benefit everybody else by loosening assumptions about what it means to be a woman in STEMM. “It creates more space for people to do things in their own way, rather than feel constrained by gendered assumptions,” says Wilkinson.

Wilkinson encourages individuals to think critically about one’s gender identity and gendered experiences. What opportunities have you had? Have you come through particular systems? What are your assumptions about motherhood and parenting?

“It’s very important that we don’t lose sight of the person behind the label,” Wilkinson says. “There are commonalities and there are going to be things that benefit everyone. But keeping the flexibility of thought to accommodate different needs, different identities and different ways of understanding the world, and knowing that gender will mean very different things in different contexts is really important.”

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