An uncomfortable topic: Class and inequality in Australia

An uncomfortable topic: Class and inequality in Australia

Diversity and inclusion is a class issue – even in Australia

My thoughts after reading the article ‘Diversity and inclusion is a class issue – even in Australia’.

I think class and inequality in Australia is a really important issue.  When I was in my senior years of high school my family fell on hard times and became socially and economically disadvantaged.  I grew up on a small farm in rural Queensland, and although we were not rich, I never really felt poor, because our family was well established and we had so much space and always had enough food.  When my parents separated, my father became a sole parent.  We stayed on the farm for a few years, but as my parents interactions took a turn for the worse, and started to involve lawyers and property settlements, the dispute over finances meant he felt we needed to move away from the farm.

First my father took my sister and I to the Netherlands, which is where he was born.  We lived there for around 8 -9 months, we were meant to go for 12 months, but by the time we reached the end 8 months it had become apparent that we were hemorrhaging money and would not be able to sustain ourselves any longer.  My father took a job in a factory, but he quit shortly after because he didn’t feel secure, and thought they might not pay him, he also thought the OH&S there was terrible and he might die of a lung disease if he stayed due to the fibres in the air.  My father thought we could not return to the farm, and the only person he though might be able to help us was his sister who lived in Sydney.  We arrived at my aunts house shortly after and stayed with her for a few months while dad tried to find a suitable apartment in Sydney.

Many of the apartments in our price range had mold on the walls or only one bedroom, or were in unsafe neighborhoods, so it took him some time to find a place for us. We always struggled with having enough money in Sydney.  Buying enough food to eat was a difficulty.  My father did as well as he could putting healthy food on the table, but there was a definite lack of things like fresh juice, and a variety of fruit.  There were little to no sweets, like biscuits or ice cream.  No frills at all.  I remember not having enough money to buy things like new underwear or even a bra. I remember wearing singlets because I couldn’t afford to buy a bra and being 16 and worrying they might be see-through.  I remember getting really upset one day about it and yelling so loud to my father about it that my neighbor heard.  The next day, my neighbor Cynthia, a woman with a beautiful heart, gave my sister and me a bag of her daughters old clothes — I was eternally grateful for her kindness.  I felt so guilty for yelling …  I felt undeserving.  I knew that I should not have been so angry over something so out of our control.  I was a teenager, I was anxious … stressed.  Overwhelmed.   I never let myself yell angrily about not having enough again.  If I felt angry, I would allow that feeling, but I would reflect on it, and not let it negatively impact others if I possibly could.

By this time I had missed over 2 years of formal education.  I enrolled in the local state high school, and they kindly turned a blind eye to my lack of school report cards and paperwork.  We literally had nothing.  We packed a suitcase of clothing each when we moved to The Netherlands, thinking it was a lengthy vacation and not a permanent move.  No one had thought we might need report cards.  I hadn’t been attending school for much of the 2 years mainly due to bullying in Queensland, and then later in The Netherlands my father not being able to afford school fees.

395167_10151112944390443_161098586_n_10151112944390443Photo: A photo I took at the sandcastle competition at the famous pier at Scheveningen, The Hague, The Netherlands (c. 2001).

I was admitted to The University of Sydney on a social equity scheme called the Broadway Scheme.  Despite The University’s elite reputation, The University of Sydney was founded upon the principle of being an equitable institution for all, where people could be offered a place based on academic merit and not their parents bank account.  At that time about 5% of students were quietly admitted via the Broadway Scheme.  It was a great opportunity of which I am thankful.  The only downfall of it was that once I was in I was very much on my own. There was no network for students in the scheme or extra support.  I  had to manage to buy things like expensive text books (there were no ‘free’ PDFs or virtual bookshelf hire options online back then), pay mandatory student union and sports fees , which were very expensive (at that time about AU$700 a year at Sydney Uni), find access to a computer in the library to access my course content (I didn’t have the internet at home).

I remember asking my chemistry lecturer if he could put the lectures on a disc for me.  He was a great lecturer, but an old and grumpy guy, and kind of put out by my request — but he did it for me.  I got a disc of files.  He said something along the lines of ‘I am only doing this once —  so don’t loose it’.  Because I didn’t have the internet at home, I was often behind on things like online pre-lab quizzes if I couldn’t get to the library to do them, so I let a lot of marks just slide because it was hard to stay back late after 5 pm to go to the library after class.  Some nights I would stay at the library until 10 pm, but I felt safer studying at home.  In the first year it was okay because I was still living with my father.  But after he moved back to Queensland, I felt abandoned.  I was really on my own, surviving on Youth Allowance as a full time engineering student.  The coursework was intense, long contact hours, and I did about 5 hours a night homework.  I was exhausted and didn’t feel I could also work.  I struggled to eat enough.  I had a flat mate but money was definitely a lot tighter.  Probably a factor in this is that the cost of living had increased, but Youth Allowance hadn’t.  I previously wrote a post on how difficult it is to survive on Youth Allowance as a full-time student.  Post available here: Affordable accommodation for disadvantaged university students?.  Back then I was always hungry, it was hard to afford enough food to eat.  I was used to being hungry.  It was not until I was more financially secure that I realised … all those years … that gnawing ache in my stomach — was hunger.

I wasn’t close with my aunt, who by that stage had re-married, and I didn’t feel I could go to her for help.  I knew my parents didn’t have the money to help me out — so I just persevered and struggled on.  When I turned 18, I had inherited a small amount of money, about $2000, from my great aunt.  I had saved it for university expenses, and I used up almost all that money on purchasing my course materials, and the fees I had to pay to the union and the sports centre.  I remember feeling so upset about the university sport fees, because even after paying about $250 – $300 a year to them I wasn’t allowed to use the gym or anything like that … it really was fee for no service.  I felt robbed of the small amount of money that I had.

179331_10151112927620443_1091118590_n_10151112927620443Photo: My friend Vicky (left) and me (right) when we were first year Engineering students at The University of Sydney (c. 2004).

I remember I realised at one point I needed to work if I was going to survive.  I once had a job interview in Bondi, but on the day I couldn’t go to the interview because I literally couldn’t afford the bus ticket.  I had no money at all.  On the day of the interview, I had taken the train to Bondi Junction, I got off the train and went to catch the bus to Bondi Beach to the shop where the interview was. I saw I had no money in my wallet.  I went to the ATM and did not have enough money to make the minimum withdrawal of $20.  I remember trying to make a phone call from a payphone to let them know I couldn’t attend, but I didn’t have 50 cents.  By that time I was 30 minutes late for the interview.  I gave up and went home in tears.

I think a lot of people don’t even think of something like being able to afford enough food, to make a phone call, buy a bus ticket, or access the internet at home.  Australia has just shifted so much in the last 20 years and left so many people behind.

So much of finding a job in Australia is about not only having the skills and knowledge — but knowing the right people and networking.  What many people of privilege or even moderate wealth don’t realise, is that it is also about having the economic and social resources available to find a job and attend a job interview.  People from disadvantaged backgrounds and circumstances just face so many more hurdles than the average person.  I feel it should be taken into account not only when getting into university with great schemes like Broadway, but also through support networks at university, and later in dignified support actually getting into work that is specialised for economically or socially disadvantaged students, perhaps run through partnerships between universities and TAFE careers centres and employers, or a dedicated government lead organisation partnered with employers, rather through Centrelink JobActive providers, which many of these students do not have access to on the Youth Allowance payment, and is not in my opinion set up for these students unique needs.

Studying at Masters level

Last year I decided to go back to university to study a Masters of Economics after several years working as a Teaching Assistant. At first it was really overwhelming. There is so much to read, write and think about and many new concepts to get my head around. It’s been really interesting and it’s been rewarding.

One of of the challenges I faced was learning how to sit and exam again. I hadn’t sat for a written exam since mid 2012 when I completed my Bachelors degree in science. I was incredibly nervous for the first few exams I sat. In one exam I ran out of time because I was too slow and being very careful. I remember in 2012 being so happy, thinking I would never sit another university exam again. How wrong I was!

I’m happy to finally be studying economics in depth rather than just having a layman’s interest.  I studied a little economics in my undergraduate degree but wasn’t able to do as much as I would have liked. Previously the subjects I took were in Political Economy and economics for project managers, like cash flow (future value, present value) calculations. I studied economics in high school and I had a great teacher who was great at explaining concepts. I will always remember those classes.

Now I can study topics that really interest me like macroeconomics. It’s also good to go back and relearn all the math I’d half forgotten! Learning it a second time has also filled up many of the little holes in my knowledge that were present the first time I studied university math. I’m still teaching, so it’s also good to share new tricks I have learned for the topics I do use regularly with my students who might be struggling.

I’ve just got through my mid semester exams for this semester but I’m feeling positive about the rest of the year ahead.

To Create Gender Equality in STEM Workplaces Must Change.

Science Mag_fig1_jpg1_Scissors of DeathSource: Data from the Third European Report on Science and Technology, 2003,

What can the disciplines of science, engineering and technology do to increase their female workforce and stop the well documented drop-off of women from the workforce over time?  In the fields of science and technology (STEM) the phenomenon of the so called Gender Scissors or “Jaws- of-Death” or “Scissors-of-Death” is widespread.  The Jaws-of-Death phenomenon is a measurement of male and female participation rates in the disciplines of science and engineering throughout their careers, measured by age.  Due to encouragement of young female students to study STEM subjects in high-school and increased enrollment of female students in STEM courses at university, the gender gap has closed significantly over recent years and almost closed completely in some sciences at this early career stage.  However looking into the future lives of female and male scientists and engineers, female participation rates drop off significantly in comparison to male participation rates.  The Jaws-of-Death graph blatantly shows the loss of women from the field of science and engineering as they age.  In scientific academia there is a marked difference between female and male participation rates, in the EU, only 33% of researchers are female and only 21% of top level academic roles were filled by women in 2015 (1).  In science and engineering the number of women in in top level positions is even scarcer at 13% in 2013 (1).

There are a number of reasons this may occur, but the most startlingly obvious reason is that these professions are not easy for women to stay and to excel.  There are a number of factors in these professions that affect women’s participation rates.  Much the way business is done in these professions means that the odds are stacked against women right from the start and opposing factors only increase against women as they age and try to progress in their careers.

This should not be seen as the fault of women but as a fault in the system. By loosing such large numbers of women from STEM or keeping women subjugated to lower positions due to the ingrained workings of a poor system, the system in place is in effect causing a “brain-drain”, a loss of potential, and a loss of economic benefit that would have been gained if those women were able to stay in STEM related work or to advance their careers.

So what are the major obstacles in the system that women have to overcome?  There are much documented and studied obstacles such as unconscious bias and the gender pay gap, but there are also more physical boundaries such as the availability of maternity leave and flexibility for employees in the workforce.  Business holds a lot of the cards when it comes to negotiating workers hours, and the fields of science and engineering have very low unionisation rates. Low unionisation means women will often be left to negotiate their contracts one on one with an employer, and they will be expected to offer similar hours of labour as male employees if they want to receive coveted roles or permanent positions.  Because of a desire by many women for flexibility, they are often forced by lack of choice and lack cooperation by employers into precarious part time contract and casual work.

The professions of scientist and engineer were male dominated occupations for centuries.  The fields have consequently developed into occupations where it is standard for employers to expect very long hours of work and high output.  Hours of work far past your standard 40 hour week. Many scientists and engineers work weekends as well as week days, and might work away from home for months on end.  As a consequence of this high benchmark for permanent positions, people who want flexibility have much lower bargaining power and much less chance of finding secure work.

There are a number of problems for women trying to work inside this construct. For starters, flexibility is very important for many women, and not just women who have or want to have children.  Many women require adequate recreation time to perform well, and don’t want to work more than 40 hours a week.  Women who are planning a family or have children want to be able to balance their family and work life without risking their career.  It is well known that many women feel they are forced out of STEM professions after having children.  In general, only women with a lot of additional support from their partners, family or already in well paid positions find it possible to stay in STEM after having children, and even then they often talk of it being a struggle.  When you talk to mothers who have been successful in science and technology, they have usually had very supportive husbands, partners or parents who were able to help a lot with children or have been able to afford nannies.  Women who don’t have support, which far out number those with sufficient support are the ones who drop out, and they are dropping out in huge numbers.

If the structure of work could be changed it would benefit not only women, but men who also suffer from being away from home and family for long periods.  For example, the field of academic science is highly competitive.  Scientific teams work long hours and are in metaphorical vicious and eternal competition with their scientific rivals to produce quality novel research and to produce it first.  Academic scientists compete with each other for accolades, for grants, for jobs and for recognition by their peers.  This has built an environment of extreme individual competitiveness where scientists often feel they cannot risk taking time off for fear of falling behind.  God knows, some team in the US or China might make the discovery first!  God forbid they might publish first!  Young academic scientists want to be the lead author, to gain the recognition they feel they deserve, to be Joe Blogs, et al. and not be one of the seemingly unrecognised and forgotten “et al.”, just a footnote at the end of a paper, a name no-one will ever remember.

Other reasons for leaving work in STEM are also commonly sighted, such as nepotism and “jobs for the boys” at higher management levels.  These problems could be addressed by stricter hiring criteria based on merit rather than favouritism, friendship networks or poor interview based character assessments.

I suggest that if the field of academic science could be completely restructured and more value put on people as a whole rather than on an individuals output, not only would women be able to stay in STEM, but the increased workforce and increased diversity would surely improve science.  This would mean a greater emphasis on a teams output rather than on individuals trying to outshine each other.  Increased availability of job share and flexibility so that two or three scientists could perform the work that one scientist working a 60 or 70 hour week currently performs.  A greater emphasis on sharing knowledge and working together as a group rather than on gaining individual recognition.

To achieve this a number of elements in science need to change, from the way scientists are hired to the flexibility afforded to scientists in the workforce, and the way that academic journals publish scientific papers and grants are distributed.  There needs to be is a greater focus on quality teams rather than bright stars. If everyone is chasing their Nobel Prize or equivalent, a situation of survival of the fittest arises and many bodies will be pushed aside.

How fitting that academic science has become a prime example of Darwinism.  But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can change. I read a sign recently that said in my loose translation from Dutch “Expecting change, without doing anything yourself is like waiting for a boat at a train station”.  We can make STEM work more accessible to women (and men) but change needs to occur and people and organisations have to be willing to make change.

We can’t expect women to stay in work in a deeply flawed system. And we can’t expect the system to change on it’s own.  We have to see the problems and be willing step up and fix the system so that it better serves us and helps us to build the kind of society that we want live in.  A society where women can be successful scientists and engineers and don’t have to overcome massive hurdles.  A society where the decision whether or not to have children will not massively impact or end your future career.  Having children or simply being male has never stopped men from being scientists or engineers and parental status or gender shouldn’t stop women either — and if it does, we have to change that.

1. SHE Figures 2015, URL: date accessed 25/6/2018.

Affordable accommodation for disadvantaged university students?

There are many things I want to address about the Australia Governments 2016-2017 budget. Alongside only postponing fee deregulation for another year the government has released a paper entitled “Driving Innovation, Fairness and Excellence in Australian Higher Education” to inform stakeholders and hope to influence the terms of the changes to higher education in the future.

Although the paper addresses some of the major problems faced in terms of fairness in higher education, for example equity for students from lower socioeconomic (SES) backgrounds and regional and rural backgrounds, and Aboriginal and Torres-Straight Islanders, it doesn’t do much to suggest an actual plan to see more of these groups attending higher education, particularly universities.

The paper outlines briefly a plan to improve infrastructure at regional universities to boost the number of students at those universities, while it states that institutions in the city already have enough infrastructure. While it would be great to improve regional higher education providers facilities to support students, I would strongly argue that institutions in major cities have enough key infrastructure to support these students. For example, one of the most important aspects that prevents these students attending universities is affordable accommodation close to campus.  Affordable accommodation on campus or nearby affordable accommodation for students from SES, rural & regional and  Aboriginal and Torres-Straight Islander backgrounds is utterly key to ensuring that they can attend tertiary education institutions. There is an inadequate number of subsidised accommodation for students from these backgrounds at many universities in Australia.

While expensive student accommodation does continue to be built, for example UrbanNest, which offers share twin share rooms from $340/week or even the Sydney University Village, with the lowest available room rate of $294/week per person (for a single room in a 4-5 bedroom apartment).  These prices for accommodation are far outside the reach of students from disadvantaged backgrounds who receive approximately $433.20/fortnight or $216.60/week in living away from home Youth Allowance payments. Youth Allowance, which is meant to cover the cost of accommodation, food and bills for students living away from home, who are between the ages of 18 to 24 years old. If you live in a major city like Sydney, you would be very lucky indeed to find accommodation close to the University of New South Wales (UNSW) or University of Sydney (USYD) in the form of a room in a share house for less than $200/week, leaving you with $16.60 for food and bills. There is still also a small amount of rent assistance for people on low incomes, about $50 a fortnight. This still leaves little to live off, unless you can find a part-time job along side your already full time study load (and that’s not that easy in the current climate). Changes to Sunday penalty rates will also affect students on lower incomes who are working part time and casual jobs in hospitality. Many disadvantaged students cant even afford basics needed to their university studies, like broadband internet at home, expensive text books, up-to date laptops (most students will be able to find a way to purchase a secondhand computer or laptop to complete assignments on, within a price range of $200 – $300).

Full time students studying STEM courses, are usually on campus 4 full week days a week, which only leaves 3 days a week for them to earn enough money to cover the cost of living in the inner city, which realistically requires about $450/week minimum in a city like Sydney, more if you are living somewhere like UrbanNest. The breakdown would be something like $250 for rent, $100 for bills and public transport, and $100 for food and necessities. If a student finds cheaper accommodation, it is probably further away, which pushes up their public transport costs. If you don’t have access to cheaper supermarkets and food co-ops, the cost of food increases.

If the government and universities REALLY want to improve the percentage of students from SES, rural & regional and  Aboriginal and Torres-Straight Islander backgrounds at universities, real affordable accommodation needs to be offered, not “affordable” accommodation, which requires the student has parents wealthy enough, or a flexible well paid part-time job to support them, which often in the case of these students, just is not the case.