About the project

Gender equity has still not been realised, despite decades of activism, policy and research. In some of the social sciences women make up less than 15per cent of the professoriate. Yet these are the disciplines that should most aid our understanding of how gender works in society. This project asks what impact women’s limited influence and status in these key fields of research has upon our capacity to grapple with the social and political changes necessary for progress toward gender equality. In doing so, it builds persuasive arguments about how and why gender matters in the social sciences.

The project takes a new approach to advancing gender equity within Australian society by asking how well we can understand the problems if we do not first address patterns of gender bias within the social sciences. These biases appear not only in women’s under-representation but in the priorities that shape research and knowledge. The project provides a complex picture of why social science disciplines differ so markedly in this respect and the costs for disciplinary innovation and social change. It also provides case-studies of gender innovation in the social sciences and its benefits.



In this project we developed a critical account of excellence in the context of a core question: how far are the social sciences themselves hamstrung by the same obstacles to gender equality that affect the wider public sphere? This is a vital question for disciplines that shape many aspects of the public realm by creating and circulating knowledge, and informing popular opinion, policy priorities and government agendas. A systematic comparative study of the issues, discipline by discipline, can provide detailed evidence of the relation between intellectual and structural obstacles to women’s advancement in academia and the capacity to produce gendered understandings of the social and political world.

Understanding how gender inequality is perpetuated within socially critical academic fields has wide repercussions for evaluating the kinds of knowledge produced within mainstream social science and in assessing likely gaps. This project explored in depth the claim that the excellence of social science research integrally involves an equity component, a claim with significant implications for research policy. Gendered Excellence in the Social Sciences is the first project to move beyond internal studies of gender within disciplines to a detailed comparison of the patterns and trajectories found across the social sciences. It provides a unique opportunity for the social science disciplines to reflect on and learn from each other.

The project had three main components:

  • collection and collation of preliminary and current comparative data from within the target disciplines in the UK, USA and Australia
  • collection and presentation of case studies
  • critical work on analysis and understanding


Project researchers

The project team consisted of chief investigators Associate Professor Fiona Jenkins, Professor Marian Sawer and Associate Professor Helen Keane; partner investigator Dr Claire Donovan; and a small team of research assistants. Short biographies of the project team.


Pilot research

Pilot research commenced in 2012, and took four disciplines for comparative investigation: history, philosophy, political science and sociology. Following preliminary assessments of gendered employment patterns in these disciplines, and building in particular on research by Sawer, Jenkins and Ann Curthoys, we convened a major workshop funded by the Australian National University (ANU) Gender Institute and the Research School of Social Sciences (RSSS). We asked leading scholars from history, philosophy, political science and sociology to reflect on four questions:

  • To what extent have feminist and gender perspectives reshaped these disciplines and how have these perspectives contributed to innovation and progress?
  • What is the relationship between the presence of women in these disciplines and their incorporation of feminist critique and knowledge (in both research and education)?
  • How have higher education and research governance, as mediated through the university and other institutions, generated pressures on the shape, content and practice of these disciplines, and with what impact on advancing the status of women?
  • Despite common pressures, are there discernible differences amongst our selected social science disciplines that can enable new approaches to equity and excellence as integrated and complementary goals? 

Papers from this workshop were published in a special issue of Australian Feminist Studies (vol 29, issue 80, 2014). They suggest the importance of developing nuanced discipline-based historical narratives of factors facilitating or thwarting feminist projects, including institutions, activism, disciplinary values and contested conceptions of the proper objects of study. They also draw attention to the consequences of gender factors being incorporated into basic research design. Moreover, they indicate the importance of developing a critical theory of ‘excellence’. An uncritical understanding of ‘excellence’ may be based upon accepting peer evaluation within research communities at face value, despite the fact that such peer review persistently reproduces inequalities. A critical approach, on the other hand, recognises that perceptions of merit are heavily gendered and that male homosociality is a key factor in consolidating the institutional power that disciplines wield.


Conferences and events

Gendered Innovation in Political Science, workshop, 10–11 November 2016

Gendered Innovations in the Social Sciences, conference, 7–9 November 2016

Excellence and Gender Equality: Critical Perspectives on Gender and Knowledge in the Humanities and Social Sciences, conference, 26-28 June 2019

Gendered Excellence in the Social Sciences, Academy of the Social Sciences Policy Roundtable, 25 June 2019

Other events

Updated:  7 November 2012/Responsible Officer:  Convenor, Gender Institute/Page Contact:  Web manager, Gender Institute