Women bear brunt of 'gig economy' situation at Victorian universities

Women bear brunt of ‘gig economy’ situation at Victorian universities

Almost one in every three employees working at a university in Victoria is a woman in a casual or fixed-contract job, suggesting the crisis of insecure work in higher education disproportionately affects women.

Analysis of jobs data from eight Victorian universities, including Melbourne and Monash, shows they employ nearly 50,000 people, and more than half of them, both men and women, are in insecure work. At Swinburne and RMIT the proportion exceeds 60 per cent of staff.

Jennifer Lacy-Nichols has spoken out about insecure work and precarious contracts in academic research.Credit:Paul Jeffers

Women are disproportionately represented as staff at universities, where they make up 58 per cent of all employees, including those in administrative and academic roles. It is a common feature of female-dominated industries in Australia to experience lower pay and more job insecurity.

“You’ve got a gender pay gap, and it’s getting worse if one in three people who work for you is a woman in insecure work,” said Sarah Roberts, assistant Victorian secretary at the National Tertiary Education Union. “It’s the universities’ dirty little secret, and they are not prepared to do anything about it.”

An investigation by The Age on the “gig economy” in scientific research and higher education showed universities had increasingly relied on a casualized workforce as science research had been starved of funds, in particular under the former Coalition government, which also denied JobKeeper funding to the sector.

One of the researchers interviewed, Jennifer Lacy-Nichols, described the pressure on her from short-term contracts, including taking minimal maternity leave after the birth of her child.

She said she was “exceedingly lucky” to be able to research the detrimental role business practices can play on public health, but that academia “could be a hell of a lot better” in terms of gender equity and job security.

Analysis of detailed employment data from Victorian universities – which unlike in other states the state government requires them to publish – shows similar levels of insecure work for both women and men. Two of the biggest employers of women, as a proportion of staff, are La Trobe and Deakin.

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