This resource examines five interrelated concepts that underpin equal opportunity policies and practices in higher education and research industries: intersectionality, equity, diversity, inclusion and access.

You are on Chapter 1 of 5: Introduction and intersectionality

Table of contents

  1. Introduction and intersectionalityhow gender and racial inequalities are interconnected and compound other forms of social exclusion, such as sexuality, disability, class, age and so on.
    1. Indigenous scholars: racial injustice; senior leadership
    2. Meaningful career pathways for Indigenous students and faculty
      • Text Box 1: How to use intersectionality to improve equity and diversity strategy
      • Text Box 2: How to promote careers of Indigenous scholars
  2. Equity: barriers, issues and solutions to structural disadvantage.
    1. Gender equity in service: “fix the women” approaches; academic service and emotion work; publication; Aboriginal scholarship; public outreach; human rights work by people of colour
      • Text Box 3: How to implement gender equity in hiring and promotion
      • Text Box 4: How to reward public service and activism
    2. “Motherhood penalty”: pay; Indigenous mothers
    3. Fatherhood bonus: childcare and parental leave
      • Text Box 6: How to promote equitable parental leave and part-time work options
    4. Work/life balance: long working hours; impact on family time
  3. Diversity: protections and promotion of differences to achieve equal opportunity
    1. Workplace culture and bullying
      • Text Box 8: How to create a culture that welcomes diversity
    2. Exploitation of precariously employed workers
      • Text Box 9: Eliminate the exploitation of precarious workers
    3. Support for early-to-mid-career scholars
  4. Inclusion: actively seeking out, valuing and respecting differences
    1. LGBTQIA scholars: lack of inclusion; engagement
      • Text Box 11: How to evaluate & improve policies for LGBTQIA+ staff
    2. Transgender staff and students: gender pronouns; intersectionality; policies
  5. Access: creating, measuring and redesigning opportunities to enhance participation by underrepresented groups
    1. Accomodations for student accessibility
    2. Discrimination of disabled faculty
    3. Curriculum, skills and support
    4. Disabled women of colour
  6. Notes

A note about this resource: this is intended as a living document, meaning I may add or revise the content over time. Posters, checklists and other free resources to promote action in your institution are forthcoming. The suggested citation is at the bottom of the page.

Chapter 1: Introduction and intersectionality

What follows is a comprehensive, though not exhaustive, introduction into the barriers and solutions to inequality in academia. The issues are restricted to career trajectory from postgraduate years to senior faculty for educators and researchers. Each section includes a discussion of the theoretical and empirical literature, with practical, evidence solutions listed in text boxes, capturing my long-standing career in equity and diversity program management, education and research.

This resource is split into five pages, for the purposes of improving reading experience; however, all five sections are intended to paint an holistic picture for social change. (If you prefer, read this resource as one PDF). You can navigate up or down the page with links to each Chapter at the top and bottom of each page.

While this resource provides numerous actions that institutions can take to improve equity, diversity, inclusion and access, by using a framework of intersectionality, the strategies might be broadly summarised thus:

  1. Inequity is institutional, not individual: education and training workshops aimed to improve awareness of bias are limited in their effectiveness to directly improve outcomes and career satisfaction of minorities and White women. These approaches, which include confidence boosting, networking opportunities and unconscious bias training, erroneously position inequity as the property of individuals. Institutions must be ready to systematically evaluate and publicly redress a plan of action with key performance indicators for departments, Executives and managers. Everyone in a decision-making and people management role must have clear actions they must take to improve equity, diversity, inclusion and accessibility (for example, see Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev 2014).
  2. Discrimination is interconnected: we cannot achieve equity without first addressing racial injustice for First Nations people, and systematically removing racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and other forms of discrimination. This work begins with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sovereignty, such as an institutional response to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and appointing First Nations people into Executive roles, and other competitively remunerated decision-making positions, across all areas of equity, diversity, inclusion and accessibility.
  3. Quotas and targets work: equity and diversity progress is hampered by policies that are divorced from the day-to-day work of institutions (Sara Ahmed 2012). Targets and quotas are paramount to correcting historical inequalities, however, where institutions have them, they are often too broad and focused on recruiting junior staff on short-term contracts. Targets must be set at every level of the organisation, including senior leadership. Goals should address promotion, retention and career satisfaction, to ensure minorities and White women are not being relegated to small areas with little career progression and institutional safety.
  4. Zero tolerance for discrimination and harassment: institutions often protect abusers and fail in their duty of care for scholars who are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, other minorities and White women. Institutional policies alone do not improve experiences and access for staff and students. Rules and guidelines must be proactively actioned by principal investigators, managers and Executives. Policies require swift and transparent resolution processes and a clear point of contact for resolving complaints.

1. Intersectionality

Intersectionality shows how gender and racial inequalities are interconnected and compound other forms of social exclusion, such as sexuality, disability, class, age, religion, geography and so on.

Race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, class, age, disability, place and other social dynamics impact on how we teach and carry out research. As such, intersectionality brings to light how structural inequalities influence how we talk about what it means to be a researcher, who benefits from academic and scientific endeavours, and who is left behind.

In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women academics, and migrant women researchers, have been systematically examining the intersections gender, race, class and other forms of oppression since the 1970s (Aileen Moreton-Robinson, 2000; Gill Bottomley, Marie de Lepervanche and Jeannie Martin 1991). The same is true for minority women in other Western nations, such as the UK, and in developing nations, who explored gender, class and colonialism (for example, see Floya Anthias and Nira Yuval-Davis 1992; Kumari Jayawardena 1986). And so, while popular culture might see intersectionality as a recent phenomena, the struggle to place gender equity issues within a broader set of intersecting forms of discrimination has a long history for First Nations and minority women in academia. This tradition can be traced back for centuries for activists, service providers and community organisers (see for example, Dulcie Flower, Mum Shirl, and Ruby Langford Ginibi).

Kimberlé Crenshaw’s (1989) original theorisation of intersectionality was a framework for understanding the limitations of industrial law for Black women in the USA. Organisational policies force Black women to compartmentalise their experiences of inequality at work. In the late 1980s in the USA, Black women were forced to choose to take formal action about either racial or gender discrimination, when in fact, these experiences are interconnected. In many ways, this is still the situation Black and other racial minority women face in academia.

Expecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and femmes, other Black women, and other gender minorities to challenge systems of inequality without changing the cultural and structural barriers they face leaves them vulnerable to further exploitation and alienation.

A stronger understanding of the connections between gender equity, racial justice and other issues of intersectionality will therefore lead to better outcomes for minorities.

Most universities and research institutes have an equity and diversity strategy. They tend to mention research excellence, scientific rigour, ethical conduct, valuing individuality, respecting difference, work/life balance, and fairness. These are all good things. But the activity areas are often distinct: cultural and racial discrimination is about multicutural ‘tolerance,’ gender equity is about ‘women,’ disability is about accessibility – mostly framed around physical access, LGBTQIA+ policies are about eliminating homophobia (with less explicit detail about other forms of discrimination, such as transphobia), and there is usually a Reconciliation Action Plan addressing Indigenous people. Then other policies cover bullying, sexual harassment, racism and other recruitment or employment grievances.

This approach essentialises experiences of disadvantage, atomising race from gender from disability and other forms of inequity. This is the antithesis of intersectionality, which is an attempt to understand the interlocking aspects of structural inequalities.  Below are some ideas to start reviewing your organisation’s equity and diversity strategic plan.

Text Box 1: How to use intersectionality to improve equity and diversity strategy

Publicise and review policies and practices. Policies that meet legal requirements are the bare minimum and have not worked to change the gender landscape.

  • Publicly commit to critical and ongoing evaluation and revision of policies and practices.
  • Publish a clear summary of policies on the organisation’s external facing website.
  • Make available detailed policies in plain language (not in legalese or in HR speak).

Adopt gender-inclusive language as standard practice.

  • Review policies, using phrases such as “all genders” rather than “men and women.”
  • Embrace gender inclusive pronouns such as “they” rather than “he/she.”

Analyse equity and inclusion, and publish results. Collecting numbers about “men and women” does little to shift the dial on racism, ableism, ageism, classism, homophobia and transphobia in organisations.

  • Use an intersectionality framework to evaluate how faculty, staff and students understand and experience gender equity issues.
  • Create a transparent plan for change that can be easily accessed by the entire organisation.

Use intersectionality to overhaul decision-making, resource allocation, improvement of services and representation. Foster a climate that welcomes and values the safety of minorities, especially people of colour from underrepresented backgrounds, over and above the comfort of White people.

  • Provide funding for cross-disciplinary groups and research opportunities for women and femmes of colour to widen their networks of support.
  • Respond rapidly and unequivocally to remove racial injustice, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, classism and other forms of exclusion.
  • Prominently showcase minorities and White women across the institution, at all levels, including in the physical environment (update portraits and artworks on walls, names of buildings and rooms)
  • Develop explicit guidelines and set processes for funding that consciously take into consideration biases in the publication system

1.1 Indigenous scholars

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people bring a wide breadth of knowledge and skills that are applicable across every academic and research domain. For example:

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up around 2.8% of Australia’s population, but are underrepresented in the academy and related industries (ABS 2017). Around 1,200 students who completed a degree in 2011 graduated with a diploma or postgraduate degree (Judith Wilks & Katie Wilson 2015). Of those still studying, Universities Australia (2017) reports that Indigenous students comprise only 1.6% of student enrolments at universities. It has set a target for the higher education sector, to increase the proportion of Indigenous students by 50% by 2020. (That is now, at the time of writing!) The goal is not unprecedented; New Zealand managed to increase similarly ambitious targets for Maori PhD students and academics in a four-year period (Dominic O’Sullivan 2018).

And yet, as Gamilaroi woman and academic, Amy Thunig, notes, universities are built on the ongoing history of colonialism, from the people they’re named after, to the denial of genocide and White supremacy.

Racial injustice leads to loss of talent

Research shows that attracting Indigenous students can be tough, as some see no obvious benefits to additional qualifications, especially given the geographic isolation and racism they will face (Jenny Gore 2017). “Prestigious” institutions in metro areas especially struggle to attract Indigenous students, who opt for regional universities (Kelsey Munro and Eryk Bagshaw 2017).

Other research shows that Indigenous PhD students often feel disrespected by their supervisors, who belittle their students’ interests and the cultural authority they can offer on different subjects (Michelle Trudgett 2011). Research also shows that Aboriginal PhD candidates have distinct demographic patterns, such as being mature age, meaning academic engagement requires novel approaches (Michelle Trudgett et. al. 2016). Better content and training for educators is equally paramount, to create meaningful pedagogy to cater to the diverse cultural and linguistic diversity of Indigenous people.

Beyond these junior levels, Indigenous workers must navigate racism in their everyday life, alongside being subjected to hostile working environments. In a survey by the Diversity Australia Council (2017), 31% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers had experienced workplace discrimination in the past 12 months, compared to 16% of non-Indigenous staff.

Another study of 22,000 academics finds that 28% of academics have experienced workplace bullying, especially women, racial and ethnic minorities and people with caring responsibilities (Skinner et. al. 2015). However, this is most acute for faculty at regional universities (42%), with Aboriginal people reporting the highest level of harassment of all groups, especially in regional universities, where they are employed in relatively greater numbers. This study also finds regional universities are also more likely to employ people without doctorates and on temporary contracts, thereby compounding gender, race and class effects for Aboriginal people. The study also finds that negative attitudes towards family commitments at work is correlated with workplace bullying.

Taken together, this creates a culture of hostility that impinges on general wellbeing of Indigenous scholars, demonstrating the need to take an intersectionality approach to equity and diversity. The motherhood penalty experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women is greater, not just leading to loss of income, but higher experiences of workplace bullying. It seems likely that the fatherhood bonus may not apply to Aboriginal men (research on the motherhood penalty and fatherhood bonus has not addressed First Nations people to date).

Senior leadership opportunities are lacking

In 2010, only 0.8% of full-time academic staff and 1.2% of general university staff were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (Universities Australia 2014). In 2016, this translates to only 400 Indigenous academics working in Australian universities, with only one-quarter at the associate professor level and above (Bridget Brennan 2017). Within the natural and physical sciences, the number might go up to 1,200 people when counting both teaching and research roles as well as professional and support roles (ABS data held by Zevallos 2015 unpublished). Of these, 68% are men and only 32% are Indigenous women (ABS data held by Zevallos 2015 unpublished).

These statistics are the circular outcome of the structural racism within academia. Indigenous people continue to battle the intergenerational trauma of colonialism and forced removal of children, known as the Stolen Generations (National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families 1997; Marlene Longbottom, et. al. 2019). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have only been counted as citizens since the 1967 Referendum, and were, for the greater part of two centuries, denied basic rights to education and economic opportunities in mainstream institutions. Academic and other research positions require a PhD, a high number of publications, a history of successful grants and other requirements that often preclude junior Indigenous scholars, who are discouraged from pursuing an academic career.

This is why inequality is not simply about gender; equity and diversity is also about racial justice. Barriers must be removed, structural changes made to the way in which we think about and reward knowledge, and novel entryways need to be created along the “pipeline.”

In short, growing the academic workforce will require a configuration of where Indigenous academics are positioned. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Advisory Council (ATSIHEAC 2015b) writes:

“Indigenous academics must not be sidelined in meaningless roles that do not provide them the opportunity to develop and contribute to the academy to their full potential. This should be self-evident for all wouldbe academics, but there appear to be disciplinary and systemic drivers that serve to disproportionately push Indigenous academics and aspirants into roles and disciplines not considered high value in the academy generally.”

1.2 Meaningful career pathways for Indigenous students and faculty

Concrete changes to the development and delivery of curriculum are needed to build a path to inclusion. This includes policy reform led by Indigenous experts (Sunanda Creagh 2013); specialised tutors who are multilingual (Lesley Neale 2017); and tailored training programs for PhD students alongside more scholarships (Ian Anderson and Elizabeth McKinley 2016).

Policy reform might also include these strategies:

Build engagement with local Indigenous leaders and representative groups into all stages of gender equity policy development and implementation of programs. Consult with Indigenous community leaders in specific local regions, as well as staff and representative groups to evaluate issues and opportunities for Indigenous inclusion.  Remunerate Indigenous experts for their time and contributions.

Improve recruitment and career development of Indigenous researchers. For example, pro-actively assist with applications for new positions, promotions and grants. Implement culturally relevant professional development initiatives such as leadership courses.

Commit to decolonising curricula and research practices. Review citations, examples used in classrooms and lab experiments, bring in paid Indigenous experts for workshops with students. Find opportunities to integrate Indigenous research and teaching methodologies, including principles of reciprocity and cultural relevance. (See this example led by Professor Langton and colleagues at the University of Melbourne, developed for school kids.)

Text Box 2: How to promote careers of Indigenous scholars

Here are a few strategies to promote Indigenous-led policies and programs that meet the unique needs and interests of Indigenous scholars:

  • Build cultural awareness training into gender equity mentoring and leadership.
  • Create Indigenous-specific places in professional development programs.
  • Make explicit culturally-specific leave and flex work arrangements for Indigenous staff and students, such as additional bereavement responsibilities (sorry business) and community activities.
  • Address racial justice action as part of unconscious bias training (concrete changes, not just ‘awareness’).
  • Cultivate deep and practical understanding of intersectionality to support Indigenous women and gender minorities, such as multiple disadvantages they face. Recognise and promote their leadership and knowledge.
  • Promote Indigenous activities, images and symbols throughout the institution. Hire Indigenous artists, catering staff and other Indigenous businesses for university events and promotions.
  • Develop Indigenous-specific recruitment initiatives, including targets/ quotas, a landing webpage on a website with case studies and testimonials on the policies, opportunities and diverse career pathways available to Indigenous faculty, staff and students.
  • Invest in culturally appropriate mentors and sponsors (who are paid) instead of over-burdening Indigenous staff and students with unpaid support.
  • Develop Indigenous-specific scholarships and awards, including targeted initiatives for cis women, gender minorities and/or men in underrepresented disciplines.
  • Reward how Indigenous staff are valued and promoted in speaking and media opportunities, awards, publicity and other honours.
  • Remunerate and protect the social media engagement undertaken by First Nations staff and students. Aboriginal people are high adopters of new technologies (Bronwyn Carlson, 2017). They create strong connections and disseminate their work widely online, but they are also exposed to high rates of racism as a result. Online and offline activism by Aboriginal academics must be supported and valued by institutions.
  • Address intersectionality of Indigenous representation on senior committees, being aware of potential challenges of committee overload. Create deputy roles for junior First Nations staff to contribute and lead in key committees, to increase visibility and boost opportunity for promotion.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction and intersectionality
  2. Equity
  3. Diversity
  4. Inclusion
  5. Access


To cite this article:

Zevallos, Z. (2020) ‘Equity, Diversity, Intersectionality, Inclusion and Access,’ The Other Sociologist, 16 February. Online resource: