Two early-career women researchers dressed in lab coats working in a lab. One woman is taking notes while another looks at something through a microscope.
Image: © auremar/

What the IRC can do to make research careers more accessible to women

17 Feb 2022

A review of the IRC gender equality strategy found significant progress has been made in terms of funding for women researchers since the strategy was implemented in 2013.

There have been some improvements for women working as researchers in Ireland over the last decade in the area of gender equality. However, more needs to be done to ensure women researchers do not fall through the cracks as they progress through their careers.

That’s according to a review of the outgoing Irish Research Council (IRC) gender strategy, which was published today (17 February). The review was carried out by Ortus Economic Research and Loughborough University. It contained a number of recommendations for the IRC to pursue in order to keep on top of its strategy going forward.

The IRC was the first research funding agency in Ireland to publish a gender strategy and action plan back in 2013. Since then, the review found that it has been successful in improving the proportion of awards held by women, which has had a positive impact on gender equality in research.

The review also found that the IRC has been successful in creating a better gender balance in its assessment panels. The proportion of women panel members increased from an average of 38pc in 2013 to an average of 44pc in 2019.

As part of the review, a survey was carried out among IRC-funded researchers, reviewers and diversity and inclusion representatives from higher education and research institutes.

Since 2013, the IRC has worked on measures to ‘gender-blind’ assessments of research proposals. The majority (83pc) of funding applicants said they were in favour of these measures. More than three-quarters (78pc) of the IRC’s international peer reviewer community said they believed that assessment processes have become more ‘gender-proofed’ in the last five years.

Peter Brown, the IRC’s director, said that the agency’s gender strategy has helped it to foster “equal opportunities and outcomes for both women and men, particularly at the formative stages of their career”, which can help Ireland’s ability to attract and retain researchers.

“Much progress has been achieved and we can see its impact today,” Brown added. But he also acknowledged the shortcomings of the strategy and the need for more supports for women researchers across all stages of their careers in order to avoid dropping off rates.

The review found that gender parity in research awards does not continue across all levels as the proportion of applications from women starts to decline as early as the postdoc research stage. While it found no evidence of disparity in success rates, the review noted that a relatively lower number of applications from women results in a lower share of awards at later career stages.

“The report also rightly highlights the need to consider other equality grounds as we move forward,” Brown said. “Ultimately, it is about developing policies and practices to ensure that we retain and support excellent people across disciplines and across our research and innovation system, regardless of background.”

Overall, the report made 14 recommendations for the IRC to update its gender strategy. These included investigating the falling proportion of applications from women for postdoc awards, and monitoring and tracking application and award data to identify any disparities between arts and humanities and STEM in recognition that different subject areas can have different barriers for women.

A review all IRC awards was also recommended to ensure that they are designed in ways that support applicants who have not been able to prioritise their research for reasons such as maternity leave, illness or family care. The IRC should also develop a strategy for mid- and late-career awards to recognise people who may have had non-linear careers and look at how each award contributes to equality and diversity.

The report also advised that the IRC should redouble its efforts to recruit women panel members in STEM subjects and for later-stage awards.

It recommended that the agency convene an advisory group to develop training, guidance and application requirements in relation to sex and gender, and continue refining its gender-proofing policies.

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Blathnaid O’Dea
By Blathnaid O’Dea

Blathnaid O’Dea worked as a Careers reporter until 2024, coming from a background in the Humanities. She likes people, pranking, pictures of puffins – and apparently alliteration.

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