Government plans women-only senior academic posts to boost gender equality

12 Nov 2018

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The Irish Government has proposed the creation of senior academic posts specifically for women at university level.

The Government is aiming to address the scarcity of women in senior-level academic positions in Ireland under its Gender Action Plan. The plan is in response to slow progress when it comes to boosting female representation in academia and higher education at senior and management level.

Over the next three years, it plans to fund dozens of women-only professorships in an effort to “eradicate gender inequality” in third-level institutions across Ireland.

Under the scheme, up to 30 women-only professorships will be established, which will cost approximately €6m over the next three years. While women make up more than half of the workforce in higher education, a mere 24pc of professors are women.

Moving the dial for gender equality

Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor, TD, said she hopes to see women holding 40pc of professorships by 2024.

The Gender Action Plan report notes that progress in Ireland has been slow compared to other countries in Europe. If current rates of progression are maintained, it could take two decades for the 40pc goal to be achieved.

The Government said that the 30 professorial posts will be in addition to existing academic staff, and confined to areas where “clear evidence” of women being underrepresented is displayed.

Accelerating progress in academia

The Irish Universities Association (IUA) welcomed the report and said it was fully committed to working with the Government to achieve the aims it outlined.

Jim Miley, director general of the IUA, said: “The IUA and its member universities are wholly supportive of the taskforce recommendations, and commit to working with the Department of Education to accelerate progress in gender-balancing. This is an opportunity for delivering a step change in gender equality across higher education.

“It will require concerted effort from all stakeholders to deliver the required change, including the department, funding agencies and the higher education institutions. We want to particularly acknowledge the leadership role of the Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor in establishing this taskforce and driving change on gender equality.”

All seven universities represented by the IUA have received the Athena Swan Bronze institutional award, which is an important international quality mark for gender equality in education.

Gender imbalance has complex causes

Dr Marion Boland, head of research policy at Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), said: “The underlying causes of the gender imbalance at decision-making levels across all sectors are numerous and complex. Over the years, Science Foundation Ireland has been at the forefront in developing initiatives to remove and mitigate any existing or perceived factors that may limit the participation of women in STEM careers and, in particular, to redress gender imbalance amongst SFI award-holders.

“We remain focused on working in partnership with other funders to ensure a two-pronged approach: the first from the bottom up, to support researchers at the most critical junctures in their careers; and the second from the top down, whereby the institutional culture can be made more aware of gender issues and become proactive in redressing gender imbalance.”

The report also outlined other ways gender balance in higher education could be achieved, including financial penalties for institutions failing to meet representational targets and a gender balance in the final candidate pool for all positions.

The proposal is likely to stoke controversy and could provoke legal challenges on discrimination grounds if it is implemented. According to the Higher Education Authority, the proposal would be allowed under Irish law.

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects