Ireland’s leadership on gender equality in higher education

Máire Geoghegan-Quinn

Posted: 10 March, 2017

Last June, the Higher Education Authority (HEA) published a national review of gender equality in Irish higher education institutions. The Gender Review Report, as it is known, was compiled by an Expert Group commissioned by the HEA and chaired by Máire Geoghegan-Quinn.  In our latest #LoveIrishResearch blog, and to mark our March theme “A Balancing Act: Gender and Research,” Máire Geoghegan-Quinn gives an overview of the report’s findings – and its significance.

When we began the review of gender equality in higher education in September 2015, we knew we faced major challenges.  Women are significantly under-represented at senior levels in higher education, both in Ireland and internationally.

Since the establishment of the first Irish university 425 years ago, there has never been a female president.

The gap between female and male representation increases at each stage of the academic career ladder.  Fifty per cent of lecturer staff in Irish universities are women, but only 19 per cent of professors are.

The fact that women are not found in the same proportion as men in the most senior positions is not because women are not talented or driven enough to fill these roles; it is because numerous factors within the institutions – conscious and unconscious, cultural and structural – mean women face barriers to progression that are not experienced to the same degree by men.

Our review showed systematic barriers in the organisation and culture within institutions, meaning talent alone is not always enough to guarantee success.

Ambitious and Radical Recommendations

In undertaking the review, we quickly realised that a ‘fix the women’ approach – aimed at getting women to change to fit existing culture – will not work.  Gender balance in top leadership positions will not be achieved in our lifetimes if we just wait for change to naturally occur.

As a result, we included deliberately ambitious and radical recommendations in our report, including:

  • Each higher education institution to introduce mandatory quotas for academic promotion, based on the flexible cascade model where the proportion of women and men to be promoted / recruited is based on the proportion of each gender at the grade immediately below.
  • Agreed targets and indicators of success to be included in higher education institutions’ compacts with the HEA.  Funding will, therefore, be linked to institutions’ performance, and will be withheld if they fail to meet agreed targets.
  • In so far as possible, the final pool of candidates at the final selection step in the appointment process for new presidents of higher education institutions to be comprised equally of women and men.
  • Each institution to appoint a vice-president for equality, who will be a full academic member of the executive management team and will report directly to the president.
  • Key decision-making bodies (concerned with resource allocation, appointments and promotions) in higher education institutions to consist of at least 40 per cent women and at least 40 per cent men.
  • Higher education institutions to apply for and achieve an Athena SWAN institutional award within three years.  Within seven years, research-funding agencies will require institutions to have attained an Athena SWAN silver institutional award to be eligible for funding.  (Athena SWAN is a system of awards – granted at bronze, silver and gold levels – to recognise institutions and departments for progress in addressing gender inequality).

Consultation with Stakeholders

In undertaking our review, we met with a wide range of stakeholders, including senior representatives from higher education institutions, government departments, unions and research-funding agencies, as well as leaders of EU-funded projects dedicated to addressing gender inequality.  We also conducted a survey that received nearly 5,000 responses.

Many of the survey responses told stark tales of inequality and discrimination, all too often unacknowledged.  These, however, were an important source of inspiration for the Expert Group, strengthening our resolve to eliminate sexism, misogyny and an unfair lack of recognition for women in higher education.

The survey findings also highlighted the need to ensure men don’t feel torn between family commitments and pressure to act in an overtly ‘masculine’ way in order to progress their careers – nor feel judged if they choose to work in an area traditionally perceived by society as ‘women’s work’.

Ireland as a World Leader

As we progressed our review, the scale of our ambition increased.

Looking beyond EU averages and international benchmarks, we developed a vision for Ireland as a world leader in gender equality in higher education – and for a higher education system where women and men are to be found in equal numbers across all levels of employment; where they no longer experience gender inequality in their daily working lives.

Gender inequality is a deeply ingrained cultural problem that has prevented humanity from realising its full potential.  Indeed it is so ingrained that we – women and men alike – are all too often unaware of it.

I am convinced of the moral, economic and social imperative for gender equality, and of its critical importance for the future of Irish higher education.

Since the Gender Review Report was published, it has been rewarding to see its recommendations being implemented in a timely way.

In December, the Irish Research Council, Science Foundation Ireland and the Health Research Board adopted one of our key recommendations by requiring higher education institutions to have Athena SWAN gender equality accreditation in order quality for research funding.  Higher education institutions must have secured the minimum Athena SWAN gender equality accreditation by the end of 2019 in order to compete for funding, and must hold the intermediate (silver) level accreditation by the end of 2023 to be eligible.

Steps such as these prove that the vision underpinning the Gender Review Report can be achieved.  However, we all must play our part: it is incumbent on each of us to reflect on our everyday interactions to ensure we don’t perpetuate damaging stereotypes.

We are confident that, with courage and determination, gender equality can become a reality in Irish higher education.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in our guest blogs are the author’s own, and do not reflect the opinions of the Irish Research Council or any employee thereof.

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