Diversifying Portraiture, History and Voices.

words by Jenny Nguyen

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Dr Helen Mayo was the first recipient of the Doctor of Medicine in 1926. She was also the first woman elected to the Council of the University.

If you walk through the campus, you’ll see statues of men. The buildings here are also named after men. The strong, overt symbolism on campus feeds into the narrative that it was the strong and wise men who are the foundations of our history. In reality, however, this is simply not the case; people from diverse backgrounds have been heavily involved in building this university. Some of our most prominent graduates include Dame Roma Mitchell, Helen Mayo and of course the nation’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. Women often have their voices drowned out at the expense of being forgotten. Whether this is due to or the systematic oppression that is embedded into the cultural fabric or fabricated by structural powers, the catalyst for change is coming from women.

Professor Deborah Turnbull is the convenor of the Gender, Equity and Diversity (GED) committee, a sub committee of Vice-Chancellor’s Committee. The goal of GED is to improve gender, equity and diversity across the faculties in both staff and student profiles and consists of members from each of the five faculties. Deb convenes this committee in addition to her academic teaching duties within the School of Psychology. Each year, GED puts on an exhibition, Diversifying Portraiture to showcase the women and their work in public spaces at this university. Statues are permanent structures and expressions of our values. They immortalise the work of those we deemed worthy enough to inspire our thoughts and actions. When asked whether she thinks this university is sexist for only glorifying the roles and work of men, Deb replies: “I think it’s actually across the sector. Our university in particular has a culture where women’s voices are less evident. However, at the same time, I think the university is making important inroad to address that.”

Diversifying Portraiture at the University of Adelaide emanated from an initiative at Oxford University where the drive was to improve the symbolism of women on campus. “Each International Women’s Day, 8th March, we release a new series of portraits of women on the campus — academic staff, professional staff, alumni”. The intention of the project is to raise awareness not only on women’s day but also for the long term. Currently, there are plans to raise money so that the portraits can be displayed on campus permanently. This alone shows that women are still fighting for their place in history.

“Each International Women’s Day, 8th March, we release a new series of portraits of women on the campus — academic staff, professional staff, alumni”

In conversations about women’s rights, especially in mainstream media, commentators often suggest that women and men in western societies are equal because there is equal access to employment, education, free speech and the right to vote for both genders. However, Deb wholly disputes this toxic sentiment. “Most of the major indicators say that’s not the case” she says. “There is a 70% pay gap in this country, still. And one in five professorial staff on campus are women. Across the sector, women professors are relatively more rare than their male counterparts”. In order to combat negative and inaccurate stereotypes, there needs to be a safe space for important initiatives. Diversifying Portraiture creates a space for that dialogue, to reflect and celebrate the work of normal, everyday women who, through education went onto achieve incredible things. A self-described feminist, Deb believes in championing and shining the spotlight on these women because we need to remember the works of women before us and to inspire the next generation.

“It’s very evident that when women go up in the academic ladder, the number of women actually decline. That is worrying because more than half of our graduates are women. And our students are not seeing women. They’re missing out on role models “

I also asked about other leadership initiatives, such as the National Tertiary Education Union’s ‘Blue Stockings Week’ — that advocates for women in tertiary education — and how it intertwines with University of Adelaide’s celebrations. “We don’t’ tend to be involved in it here” says Deb, “which is one of the reason we decided to do this.” GED noticed that there was a gap in the number of cultural events that are put on at this university. The office also organises and hosts Reconciliation Week as well as International Women’s Day. There is a challenge in making this more accessible, too. In the digital age, the office are trying to work onto digital spaces and to reach younger audience. There are exciting projects in the works!

Finally, I asked the question that I have been posing to women this month: do you need to adopt the term feminist” in order to be one?

“I identify with it and my mother, sister, brother and my father would have, too. I think some women in politics shy away from it because they’re afraid a word might brand them in a particular way. It is shame they can’t just come out and say it and not gloss over it with “I believe in equality but it doesn’t mean I’m a feminist”. We shouldn’t need to be coy about these things.”


Adelaide University student magazine since 1932. Edited by Nicholas Birchall, Felix Eldridge, Taylor Fernandez and Larisa Forgac. Email us at onditmag@gmail.com

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