The Institutions That Don’t Care

CW: institutional betrayal; gender identity discrimination; sexual assault & harassment.

Art by Beth O'Sullivan

In 2021 there were a slew of ANU student research surveys I encountered that essentialised the gender binary.  It was after the fifth or sixth psychology student shared such a research survey to ANU Schmidtposting that I began to question the Research School of Psychology’s teaching. 


One survey collected “gendered” data with the options: “Are you male; Are you female; Are you intersex/indeterminate/unspecified?” These questions were so prejudiced and bizarre I had to re-read them multiple times before its underlying rhetoric of discrimination – equating anatomical sex to gender, disallowing intersex individuals to be male or female, and lumping together every so-called “non-normative” identity together – became clear to me. 


When answering another survey’s first question (“Are you a female?”) the alternate options to “Yes” – “No” and “Prefer not to say” – immediately kicked participants from the survey. We’re only looking for “females,” the survey was saying, a particulartype” of woman whose anatomy corresponds 1:1 with her gender.


Not only were undergraduate students posting these surveys, but so were honours and higher degree research students. These surveys had been signed off by a plethora of supervisors and received the shiny tick of approval from the ANU Human Research Ethics Committee (HREC). Apparently nothing in the Psychology School’s whole undergraduate degree plan had taught its students about gender – which was nevertheless, supposedly, a completely necessary data point. 


Each time these surveys were shared, I wondered how a supposedly first-class institution could allow inarguably discriminatory and transphobic research. Not only is this research damaging in that it upholds the (violent) gender binary, it’s also unscientific for the same reasons. Not to mention archaic in its methodology: the American Psychological Association (APA) 2015 style guidelines state gender binary measurements should be abandoned due to its exclusionary (and thus inaccurate) and discriminatory nature. 


I contacted the researchers responsible for both aforementioned surveys, beginning both emails with various versions of “I am a Gender Studies student at ANU” as if I needed a specific academic reasoning and background to be allowed to be critical and dismayed. The responses were near-immediate. The surveys were taken offline then changed. Thank you for raising this, we are very sorry if this caused any distress, everyone seemed to say to me; this is very important, they all agreed. 


Then how, I wondered, had nobody ascertained this before? 


The more I thought about it, the more I realised this was an institutional failure. Entangled with this ‘superficial’ failure of research and research approval, there exists ANU’s and academia’s broad institutional limitations (an overload of administrative work pushed onto academics limits their ability to be involved in – especially student – research projects, for one). I slowly recognised my surprise at this ‘new’ failure of ANU to be a form of my (cisgendered) privilege and naivety.


One of the research supervisors in early 2021 promised me they were “committed to continually improving [their] understanding of gender and [how it is measured].” Reviewing this in late 2021 with another Psychology School academic, I was told my feedback had been raised in a variety of channels. This included the Psychology School’s Executive Meeting, and that a change in the way gendered research is undertaken, especially survey wording, should slowly begin to see a shift. I was also informed that a new undergraduate course, Culture and Psychology (PSYC2012), was to be launched in 2022, becoming a core Psychology course from 2023, which would cover, in part, the “issues” I had raised. 


Per PSCY2012’s Programs and Courses page, there is no specific reference to gender. Instead, the course seems to focus on the Eurocentric origins of psychological science with “particular emphasis” placed on “Indigenous issues in psychology.” Based on its description, it is an inarguably important course, but one which seems to occlude gender, gender identity and how to collect gendered data accurately and empathetically.


I had also contacted the HREC, attempting to change the scope of ethical approval for gendered language and data collection. In my email, I included a 2019 article by Cameron and Stinson outlining guidelines for collecting gendered data in psychological research. When HREC replied, they noted they had updated the Gender and sexuality in research page to include the 2019 Cameron and Stinson article I had supplied, along with a new section about gendered data and sex and gender within language. This was an article, I emphasise, which I had hastily skimmed before sending it off on its surprising journey to an official research Ethics & integrity webpage – perhaps proving precisely what little these measures are worth.


Sara Ahmed is a cultural theorist who quit their position at a university due to the way it handled complaints of sexual assault and harassment. Ahmed writes about the institutional obsession for “damage limitation” in complaints processes, and further notes how “an email … led to [their] name being put forward … to [help] write a new race equality policy,” showing how “a complaint, whether made formally or not, can lead you to become a diversity worker.” 


My experience is not equivalent to Ahmed’s, but it is perhaps parallel. It remains integral to question on whom the onus is placed to improve institutional systems. And while I didn’t experience the same amount of pushback which occurs from other forms of complaints which Ahmed chronicles – especially sexual assault and harassment, racism and bullying – I am still left with a feeling of uneasiness. An uneasiness which compounds when I realise that this was a largely successful complaint process, with numerous responses from individuals who seemed genuine in their caring. 


But it remains to be seen the efficacy and actionable changes my complaints will have on the Psychology School and HREC. Is there a genuine drive and, indeed, ability to meaningfully shift the way research is conducted and approved? Or were the responses I received false promises from an obdurate institution bent on rigidity, prioritising “damage limitation” over the wellbeing of community and people? Only time will tell.


If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual assault, harassment, or discrimination in any way, you can reach out to the support services listed below.

Lifeline (13 11 14) A national charity providing all Australians experiencing a personal crisis with access to 24-hour crisis support and suicide prevention services. Call 13 11 13.

Genderqueer Australia Specialises in the support of gender questioning and genderqueer people, their family, friends and professionals who they go to for help.

Intersex Human Rights Australia Intersex human rights, information, education and peer and family support.

Intersex Peer Support Australia An intersex peer support, information and advocacy group for people born with variations in sex characteristics and their families.

Canberra Rape Crisis Centre (6247 2525) CRCC are on campus and available to support you if you have experienced sexual violence, harassment, or anything that has made you feel uncomfortable. You don’t need a Medicare card to see them, all appointments are free, and nobody will be told you have spoken to them. You can call CRCC on 6247 2525 between 7am and 11pm.

1800RESPECT Provides support for people experiencing, or at risk of experiencing, sexual assault, domestic or family violence, their friends and family, and workers and professionals supporting someone experiencing, or at risk of experiencing sexual assault, domestic or family violence. Call 1800 737 732.



Originally published in Woroni Vol. 72 Issue 5 ‘To Be Confirmed’

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