By Caroline Lord 03/12/2020

Glass ceilings are a reality for Māori and Pacific academics at New Zealand universities, according to new research.

This group is already in the minority, making up just 5% and 2% respectively of the academic workforce, with less than 4% and 1% employed at professor level positions. These employment levels remained static between 2012 and 2017.

The new study, published in MAI Journal, sheds light on these inequities using Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF) data from 2003, 2012 and 2018. According to lead author, Dr Tara McAllister (Te Aitanga a Māhaki/Postdoctoral fellow at Te Pūnaha Matatini) the findings suggest a systemic problem that requires urgent attention.

“Our data modelling showed that these inequities would either persist or increase over time. That is, current promotion practices will not close the gap in promotions and related earnings; suggesting the need for system-wide change,” she told the Science Media Centre.

Māori and Pacific women are the most heavily impacted, being 65% less likely to be promoted to professor roles across the time period studied. Annually, they were also paid an average of $7,713 less than their non-Māori and non-Pacific male counterparts in 2018.

“Inequities for Māori and Pacific have been an ongoing festering wound in the makeup of our beautiful Aotearoa”, says Auckland University of Technology’s Professor of Diversity Edwina Pio. “Despite rhetoric and some excellent actions towards making Aotearoa more equitable, the reality in organisations, and also in universities, leaves much to be desired.”

Associate Professor Nicola Gaston at the University of Auckland and author of Why Science is Sexist is unsurprised by the findings. “This new study builds on existing literature demonstrating how the gender pay gap is contributed to through inequities in university promotions relative to research performance, as well as considerable documentation of the systemic problems academia has with exclusion of Māori and Pacific academics. As such, the conclusions of this study are not at all surprising — but they are shocking, and they are important.”

Māori and Pacific students are currently underrepresented within New Zealand’s tertiary education system. The presence of academics from these communities, holding high-level positions, can encourage the next generation of indigenous and Pasifika scholarship across all disciplines. But this community responsibility carries a heavy burden, Dr Gaston explains.

“Māori and Pacific academics have a disproportionately large expectation that they contribute to the pastoral care of students, a responsibility that falls under the teaching or service contributions to an academic workload. Since promotions are supposed to be based on the full academic workload — roughly a third each on teaching, service, and research — the idea that people are under promoted relative to their research performance, as measured in the PBRF evaluation, represents a dramatic double whammy in the inequity it demonstrates.”

Professor Pio supports the researchers’ recommendations for change. “It is crucial to ensure that Māori and Pacific academics have a seat when strategic initiatives are developed and planned, so that silences can be unmasked and voices of reason, re-distribution and relationality are honoured.” She notes that further qualitative research, such as comparing the Māori and Pacific findings with the institutional standings of all women and other minority groups, would create a broader understanding of potential academic inequities across gender and ethnic divides.

Photo by Alex Motoc on Unsplash

As the economic effects of Covid-19 place pressure on many institutions, Dr McAllister hopes her report can aid future university decision-making around hiring and promotion opportunities. “Not only are Māori/Pacific academics severely under-represented in New Zealand universities, but many are clustered in the junior ranks of academia where jobs and incomes are more precarious. Changes due to restructuring risk further widening the gap between Māori and Pacific and non-Māori/Pacific academics. This will have flow-on effects for years to come.”

A recent statement released by the New Zealand Association of Scientists acknowledges the pandemic has caused dramatic disruptions to early-career research pathways, and exacerbated the disparities faced by Māori and Pacific academics. The association’s president, Professor Troy Baisden, says “this year has seen a growing set of studies quantifying inequality in New Zealand’s research and academic systems. Our research system is not the meritocracy many thought it was. We can and should work to fix the problems.”

Dr McAllister is clear about how to achieve this. “Universities need to urgently address the racial disparities in promotion, retention and recruitment of Māori and Pacific academics, establish a system that values and rewards Māori and Pacific scholarship and work towards building a sustainable Tiriti-led Māori and Pacific academic workforce.”

As the financial fallout of the pandemic continues, Dr Tyron Love, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Business and Economics, looks forward to seeing how institutions will respond to the report. “Universities will either embrace some of the changes the authors suggest or they’ll hunker down and dismiss them as fanciful pursuits in a time of economic uncertainty which is sure to last.”

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Featured image: by Green Chameleon on Unsplash