Women and History at the #OzHA2015 History Conference

The history profession in Australia appears to be a healthy profession for women judging from the proceedings of the annual conference of the Australian Historical Association held in Sydney this week. The prominent keynote sessions were dominated by women and a majority of presenters in the parallel sessions were women.

It is not hard to find highly qualified women historians who lead the profession in Australia as the conference organisers demonstrated. While the conference opened with a keynote presentation by Cambridge University’s Professor Peter Mandler, it was a woman historian, Professor Penny Russell, who welcomed the participants to the conference in the opening session. Russell is the chair of History Department at the University of Sydney which hosted the conference. The History Department is the largest in Australia. The chair of the organising committee was Associate Professor Kirsten McKenzie who spent the whole conference chugging in the background organising a productive event.

Head and shoulders of Ann Curthoys

Professor Ann Curthoys delivered the high profile public lecture at the conference.

Professor Ann Curthoys delivered the highest profile event of the conference. Her public lecture was recorded by the ABC for later broadcast as part of Radio National’s Big Ideas program. Curthoys has written and co-written a slew of articles and books on race relations in Australia, Aboriginal history and feminist history.

Professor Shurlee Swain who gave the keynote lecture for the Religious History Association conference stream has taken a leading role in research into the history of welfare, children and adoption. Most recently Swain has written reports surrounding the history of child protection for Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Professor Jill Matthews delivered the keynote for the Australian Women’s History Network (AWHN) conference stream. Professor Jill Matthews wrote what has been described as a “path-breaking” feminist history in 1984 titled, Good and Mad Women: The historical construction of femininity in twentieth century Australia. Since then she has researched women’s history, cultural history and popular culture.

The two plenary panels of the conference also featured women. Two of the three panelists on the topic of Historicising International Law were women. The prominent plenary panel ‘Big Questions in History’ panel, which is a highlight of every conference, featured four women amongst the seven speakers.

Gender of Speakers at Parallel Sessions

The bread and butter of any conference are the parallel sessions. These are the core of the collegial exchange which is such a bounty for conference participants. There were 311 speakers at these sessions who delivered 280 papers whether individually or as part of panels. I have included the Religious History and AWHN streams in these statistics.

I wanted to see how many women and how many men presented, so I manually identified each presenter identified in the conference program as male or female. I tried to be conservative with this, looking up many people where their gender was not clear from their name. I took a great deal of care about this but there is a chance that I have misidentified a person if their name is typically used for a different gender, for instance I would have identified a male ‘Jennifer’ incorrectly. I have also used the gender binary, so I apologise if this simplification does not adequately express a person’s gender identity.

The result of this analysis surprised me. My anecdotal experience has been that the history profession in Australia is a good place for women, but I did not expect the statistics to bear this out quite so emphatically.

Pie chart demonstrating statistics repeated in text in post

An analysis of the gender of speakers at parallel sessions as listed in the conference program.

Sixty per cent of the speakers in the parallel sessions were women.

I have read about concerns in the United States and the United Kingdom about the male orientation of the history profession and had always been surprised. Why would history have a gender problem?

The 2015 issue of the feminist history journal, Lilith, was launched at the conference.

The 2015 issue of the feminist history journal, Lilith, was launched at the conference.

However, it always pays to dig deeper into the statistics. I have already noted the number of papers delivered in sessions about gender, and the significant AWHN conference stream. Were the women mainly presenting on ‘women’s issues’?

I tagged the AWHN papers with the word ‘Women’ as well as any other paper with the word ‘Women’ in the title. This is a crude method to identify papers about women’s history but I didn’t have time to clean up the data from the pdf file with the abstracts and speakers don’t assign keywords to their papers.

I found that thirty thirty-six women presented papers on women’s history and only seven three men did. With regards to other papers that did not relate to women’s history, masculinity or gender, 49% 46% of these presenters were women. While women historians dominated the women’s history papers, these statistics indicate that they are also researching all sorts of other topics in history.

Head and shoulders of Penny Russell

Professor Penny Russell, chair of the History Department at University of Sydney, the largest history department in Australia.

There is a lot more that should be explored here than I can possibly explore in a simple blog post, but as I noted in my posts about my mother’s career in science and technology, men play a crucial role in bringing about more equal representation of women in public and professional life. I have experienced sexist work places and been at the receiving end of discriminatory education systems while at high school. One of the first things I noticed when I went back to university to study history in 2007 was the ethos of men in the history department at the University of Sydney. The majority of the male lecturers and tutors I dealt with exhibited a consciousness of their privileged position. I didn’t feel that exclusive blokeyness that can be a problem in Australia. Fifty per cent of the lecturers I had were female (I didn’t do any women’s history units).  Mark McKenna was my honours supervisor and Alan Atkinson has been a wonderful, ongoing mentor. In the history department of the University of Sydney I felt that my student contributions were taken seriously and didn’t feel any of the consciousness that I was an out-of-place woman that I feel in some other settings.

There is much to be frustrated about regarding ongoing, systemic discrimination in work places and education, but while exposing these injustices it is important to acknowledge those from privileged positions who through their every day behaviour are quietly providing an example that other privileged people can follow. I don’t feel at all comfortable about broad generalisations that use stereotypes to cast all of one group position in the corner labelled ‘bad’. Both the privileged as well as the victim need to work on addressing the scourge of discrimination. The man who does not ‘mansplain‘ but mentors women to help them achieve, who happily shares the stage or sits in the audience listening to women giving keynote addresses provide the quiet example that can contribute to the change that is needed in our society.

A few years ago I analysed book reviews in Australian academic history journals to see how many women authors were reviewed. Two of the journals showed that there were almost as many women historians reviewed as male historians, but one journal included reviews of books of relatively few women historians compared to male historians. This surprised me at the time as I knew of many women historians who write political histories, the topic of the journal.

It is hard to draw convincing conclusions on such crude statistics but it would be interesting to examine this further.

Statistics can obscure or confuse issues, particularly superficial statistics that I have presented above. There are many historians who for one reason or another did not attend the conference. Did a higher percentage of women historians choose to attend this conference than male historians? The previous week the Global Digital Humanities Conference was held at the University of Western Sydney. I know there were some historians who were able to attend that conference but consequently were unable to attend the Australian Historical Association conference. There are probably other conferences happening around the same time which historians chose to attend instead of this one.

Parenting and Work

An issue that I heard people mentioning quietly at both conferences was the problem of childcare. Both conferences coincided with school holidays in Australia and many academics found it difficult to attend conferences because of this. A few academics brought their children to one or two sessions, presumably because there was no alternative.

This is something that affects women, but increasingly affects men (as it should). From the perspective of an observer I suspect that attendance of conferences is reduced due to this issue.

Our society as a whole segments our lives into public professional roles and private parenting roles. There is little connection between the two, leaving the individual in a stressful position trying to juggle the roles. The message our society sends is that parenting and children just have to fit in to our way of work, rather than our way of work fitting in with the needs of our children.

As PhD student, Deborah says, “[t]here is no “invisible power pellet” or perfect one-size-fits-all recipe for finding the work-family-life-happiness sweet spot”. At the moment each of us has to muddle our way through these issues in a way that works for our family. But this puts all the onus on the individual employee. Organisations need to also look seriously and imaginatively at this issue.

We need ways of living and working that encapsulate a more holistic understanding of adult lives. Both the will to change and the imagination to think of new ways to organise our work are required. We cannot leave this to the broad forces of the universe to sort out on our behalf. We need to be proactive and set our minds to addressing these issues. Our use of Twitter (#OzHA2015) and Janine Rizzetti’s blogging went some way to help people unable to participate to follow the conference proceedings, but I suspect that if we apply our creative minds we could do a lot more with technology, but technology is not the answer to everything. Are there changes we could make to the format of the conference?

I leave this reflection with a note of caution. The history profession in Australia looks like a profession in which women participate actively and on equal terms, but this is a ‘first glance’ impression. It is not a definitive analysis. Given the perceived differences between the profession in Australia and the United Kingdom and United States, it would be interesting to explore it further. It would also be useful to wear the sceptics hat and test whether it really is a land of milk and honey for women of all backgrounds in the Australian history profession.

Addendum 14/7/2015: I double-checked my calculations today and have made some corrections as indicated. These corrections reinforce the caution that I place on this analysis. There are some discrepancies between the abstracts and the conference program documents I am working from. 

Discussion about women’s place in university history departments seems to be a topic of interest in many parts of the world. Overnight ActiveHistory.ca published a post about the disproportionate number of men who are professors in Canadian history departments. Thomas Peace found that only 38% of Canadian history professors are women. 

Given the apparently different working environments facing women in university history departments in the United Kingdom, United States, Canada and Australia, this issue is worthy of deeper, comparative research.

6 thoughts on “Women and History at the #OzHA2015 History Conference

  1. Thanks for these interesting reflections. I was unable to attend the AHA conference but your gender break-downs resonate with my institution to an extent. We have a very small history ‘department’, and while the teaching and research staff are roughly half women, out of our 10 history HDR students (of which I am one), 9 of us are women. But I presume this is a quite significant exception!


    • Thanks for your feedback Jo. I tried to be cautious about my observations as I only have my experience from University of Sydney to go by, so comments about history departments at other Australian universities are helpful. Which university are you studying at?


      • Hi again, I’m at Griffith, and our department covers both Brisbane and the Gold Coast. I don’t believe any of our post-grads made it to the AHA, but a few of our staff did. I couldn’t say why there are so few men doing PhDs in history at our institution, but it’s been that way for at least several years now!


  2. i didn’t take a count but one thing that struck me when I attended the ‘Whitlam’ strand is that that particular audience seemed to be predominantly male. I hadn’t noticed it in any other session. I don’t know why or what it means (if anything).


    • The Whitlam sessions were held at the same time as the Australian Women’s History Network sessions so it would be hard to draw any conclusions about the interest of women in other sessions on that day.


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