Trinity College Library. Image: Jon Chica/Shutterstock

Why are Ireland’s universities letting women down?

24 Jul 2017

The Higher Education Authority report showing that women account for only 21pc of professors in Irish universities highlights a big problem, writes John Kennedy.

If you’ve ever wandered through the hallowed halls of Trinity College Dublin (TCD) or places such as the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, your mouth nearly drops to the floor when you see these stern old men from centuries ago staring down disapprovingly at you from the walls.

If you walk through the famous library at Trinity, for example, reams of books are guarded solemnly by the busts of brilliant, learned men from long ago.

But where are the women?

Dublin City University is already addressing this anomaly by renaming three buildings after women academic trailblazers in STEM as part of its Project 50:50 initiative. But more should be done if we want to send the right signal to future generations.

These thoughts ran through my head over the weekend as I pondered a couple of things prompted by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) report, Higher Education Institutional Staff Profiles by Gender, last week.

The report showed that not only has there been no female head or provost of an Irish university in something like 400 years, but only 21pc of professors in Irish universities are women.

This is at odds with the numbers at the start of an academic career where usually, the women outnumber the men.

What is it that happens along the course of these careers that kills that spark?

Worse still, what kind of a message does it send to young girls, young women? We need to tell them fervently that they can be anything they want to be.

Schism in the system

Why are Ireland’s universities letting women down?

Infographic: HEA of Ireland

A three-year average profile of academic university staff shows that women account for 53pc of undergraduates, 54pc of postgraduates and 51pc of lecturers.

But, the higher you go, the more the balance shifts. A schism sets in.

Men account for 64pc of senior lecturer positions.

It gets worse. By the stage of associate professorships, men account for 71pc, and full professors are 79pc men versus 21pc women.

This last statistic is unchanged from 2014, a landmark year where the issue of gender discrimination in Irish universities became legal history.

A three-year window isn’t an accurate reflection on how careers that last decades pan out, but it does tell us something.

It tells me, for example, that once women academics reach a certain point in their career, they start to disappear, or are derailed.

This report led to a storm of debate on social media and in the newspapers.

“Mediocre men are outperforming outstanding women because of the nature of the system,” said Jane Ohlmeyer, a senior academic at TCD, in the The Irish Times. “Sometimes it’s because women are not putting themselves forward; in other cases, it’s because it’s a patriarchy. However we try to gloss over that, it’s a reality.”

The reality is, there is a culture problem in our universities. Something is happening that is causing the academic landscape to rob itself of half of its brightest minds. Ponder that for a moment.

This is a very real problem that has led to recent legal battles.

In 2014, NUI Galway (NUIG) was ordered to pay €81,000 to Mary Dempsey, a lecturer, after she took a case against the university to the Equality Tribunal. The same year, Dr Micheline Sheehy Skeffington took a landmark case against NUIG, and the Equality Tribunal found that the university had discriminated against the botanist for promotion because of her gender. NUIG didn’t appeal the decision. Last year, four female lecturers at the same university took legal action alleging gender discrimination in a competition for promotion.

Beacons of achievement should also be havens of equality

Universities should be the very places that should shine like a beacon, encouraging young women to be the best they can be.

We instantly assume that these havens of intelligence would have all of this figured out, and that wisdom, merit, collegiality and fairness would win out. But sadly, they do not.

We need to find out what happens in the course of not only an academic career, but careers in a variety of industries that skew the statistics.

It is lazy to suggest family commitments – the world has moved on from that. The developed world, anyway.

Something is very wrong if the statistics indicate that more women than men begin academic careers, but that only 21pc of women end up being professors, the pinnacle of achievement in academia.

Without spoilers, there was a line in the first episode of the latest series of Game of Thrones that echoed the sentiment voiced by Kimberly Bryant of Black Girls Code, which I’ve published here before.

It doesn’t matter whether it is the tech industry, Westeros or academic Ireland, the sentiment is clear. “By limiting women in technology, we are limiting ourselves to only half of the world’s solutions,” Bryant said at the very first Inspirefest three years ago.

Academics and managers in our fine institutions, please replace the word ‘technology’ with ‘academia’ and ask yourselves, why would you want to diminish the world you live in by turning away half of the brightest lights?

Trinity College Library. Image: Jon Chica/Shutterstock

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John Kennedy
By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years. His interests include all things technological, music, movies, reading, history, gaming and losing the occasional game of poker.

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