While innovation has the power to transform lives, we know that there are still many barriers to achieving equality and equity for women, particularly in higher education.
In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people represent approximately 1.8 per cent of the total higher education student population.
This underrepresentation becomes more apparent at the post graduate level. In 2020, there were just 586 Indigenous PhD students out of a total 58,110 PhD students across all Australian universities. This is just one percent of the overall domestic PhD cohort.
However, through higher education and doctoral advancement, the intellectual position of Indigenous women is changing in Australia.
Distinct from, but complementary to, the ancient traditions of Indigenous women as equal knowledge holders, higher education scholarship is offering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women the opportunity to theorise and develop Aboriginal women’s gendered place.
In 2018, there was twice as many female Indigenous higher education students (12,043), as male students (6,019). Women make up the majority of Higher Degree by Research (HDR) population, both in Indigenous HDR enrolments (56 per cent) and the overall domestic population (66 per cent).
And education is well recognised as a social determinant of health.
The United Nations’ (UN) Sustainable Development Goals include Gender Equality and Quality Education for All in the knowledge that women’s access to education underpins progress in so many other aspects of society.
In Australia, June Oscar AO, Commissioner of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, has put a spotlight on Aboriginal women’s education.
In the Commissioner’s Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices) Report in 2020, learning and education are identified as central to leadership in social change for Indigenous women’s life outcomes.
Continued learning in adulthood is a powerful tool in achieving better health and socioeconomic advancement, while investing in the education of women strengthens economies and reduces inequalities. In fact, a mother’s education status is the single most important factor in their children’s life outcomes.
At the University of Melbourne, the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences (MDHS) currently has 25 enrolled Indigenous PhD students. 70 per cent of these are women.
Their research is wide-ranging and has important translational potential in Indigenous health.
With the expert guidance of their supervisors, they are becoming leaders and change-makers in their own right, in research areas like cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, family violence, Indigenous discourses, cultural identities and culturally safe emergency care among others.
The doctoral research of these women simultaneously achieves multiple goals.
It makes some headway toward achieving equity in leadership for Indigenous women. It builds social equity in families where higher education, just one generation ago, was not an option.
It also addresses the multitude of health issues facing Indigenous communities in ways that speak truth to ancient traditions of scholarship and inquiry.
In the last two years, six of the seven Indigenous PhD graduates from the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences have been women, with many going on to post-doctoral research.
The Faculty also has a newly established post-doctoral pathway, the Peeneeyt Thanampool (Strong Women) Aunty Joan Vickery and Aunty Angela Clarke Indigenous Post-doctoral Fellowship. Named in memory of two Elders who held positions in the Onemda Koori Health Research Unit within the Faculty, the Fellowship offers important research career continuity for Indigenous MDHS PhD graduates.
Aunty Joan and Aunty Angela were respected Aboriginal community leaders and fierce academic trailblazers. They worked tirelessly to change the academy to meet the needs of the Aboriginal community, and their role modelling and influence on the careers of young Indigenous women in the academy and the health sector was significant.
Transformative gains in Indigenous health rest on the leadership of an Indigenous health workforce. Higher education, in particular doctoral study, offers this.
Educated women lift families, communities, and countries out of poverty. A mother’s education status is the single most important factor in their children’s life outcomes.
While there is still a long way to go, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are leveraging the power of inclusive innovation and taking up the challenge to educate themselves and build an agenda for change.
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