Athena SWAN launches in Ireland to address gender inequality in higher education

6 Feb 2015

Jan O'Sullivan, Minister for Education and Skills, addresses attendees at the launch of the Athena SWAN Charter in Ireland, at the Department of Education and Skills in Dublin. Photo by Jason Clarke Photography

The Athena SWAN Charter in Ireland will award academic institutions and departments for cultural and systemic changes to address gender inequality, particularly in STEM and medicine.

It was a packed house yesterday at an event in the Department of Education and Skills in Dublin to officially launch the Athena SWAN Charter for the higher education sector in Ireland.

Seven universities, 14 institutes of technology and the Royal College of Surgeons have now signed up to the charter, thereby committing them to advance women’s careers in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) employment in academia.

Rewarding a culture of equality

For the last decade, the Athena SWAN programme has been looking to address gender equality in higher education and research in the United Kingdom, where it is run by the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU).

Participating institutions and departments assess their culture and practices as they relate to gender equality, they set out and implement an action plan and they can achieve bronze, silver or gold awards based on their progress.

A recent external evaluation found that in the UK the implementation of the Athena SWAN charter was having a positive impact on career satisfaction, opportunities for training and development, knowledge of promotion processes and fairness in the allocation of workload.

And in a move supported by the Higher Education Authority, the Athena SWAN Charter has now been expanded to Ireland, formally launched by Minister for Education and Skills Jan O’Sullivan, TD.

Pilot in Ireland

The initial step is an Athena SWAN pilot, which is now open to all publicly funded universities and institutes of technology in Ireland. The pilot will continue until April 2017 and involves each institution setting up a self-assessment team and looking at data and trends relating to gender equality, explained ECU Athena SWAN adviser Dr Ruth Gilligan, who is co-ordinating the pilot in Ireland.

“We want to embed Athena SWAN in the culture of higher education (in Ireland), and the pilot is a way to kick it off, ” she told “It is not a tick-box exercise, you have to progress. You don’t get a chance to rest on your laurels – you show where you are, and you show the action plan for three years and then you have to come back and show what you did.”

Tom Boland, chief executive of the Higher Education Authority (HEA) with Minister for Education and Skills Jan O’Sullivan and David Ruebain, chief executive of the Equality Challenge Unit, at the launch of the Athena SWAN Charter in Ireland, at the Department of Education and Skills in Dublin. Photo by Jason Clarke Photography

Catalyst for change

ECU chief executive David Ruebain said the initiative in the UK had gone from involving 10 institutions in 2005 to ‘near-saturation’ today. “In the UK nearly every institution that teaches STEMM is a member of SWAN,” he told the launch.

“We are absolutely delighted that we have the opportunity of working with you in developing the charter in Ireland – I describe it as a virtuous circle: I think our experience of working with institutions here will add value and benefit to the charter in the UK, as well, adding depth and breadth to our knowledge and understanding of the experiences of women in academic positions.”

Prof Eileen Drew from the Centre for Women in Science & Engineering Research at Trinity College Dublin – who chairs the Athena SWAN Ireland committee – spoke about how the charter would act as a catalyst for change, and how we would look back to its introduction as a “major milestone in Irish education”.

Strong messages

Representatives from higher education institutes in Ireland were out in force for the launch, including numerous university presidents and vice-principals of research, and several leaders from the institutes of technology. So what did attendees make of the new development?

Dr Edel Healy, head of the School of Health and Science in Dundalk Institute of Technology, believes the launch sends an important message.

“In my role I work with a large number of young female academics in the STEMM field,” she told “I think that launching the Athena SWAN Charter in Ireland signals to them the commitment at senior level to providing them with an equitable career structure and a work environment that supports diversity and equality.”

Prof Orla Feely, chair of the Irish Research Council and vice-president for Research, Innovation and Impact at University College Dublin (UCD), said that the extension of Athena SWAN to Ireland is both important and positive. 

“We know our situation at the moment is not as we would like it to be, so this (charter) challenges us, but it also presents us with the opportunity to benchmark ourselves,” says Feely, who chairs the Athena SWAN committee in UCD. “We are taking it very seriously, we recognise the potential to improve our institution through appropriately addressing gender equality and we look forward to success in UCD and nationally.”

Dr Marion Palmer, chair of Women in Technology and Science and head of the Department of Technology and Psychology at Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology said she was pleased to hear about a recommitment to gender equality in the higher-education sector.

“There have been lots of initiatives, but Athena SWAN seems to be one of systemic change, and that is more than welcome,” she said, looking forward to the day when women being in senior management in STEMM subjects is as ordinary and commonplace as men holding those positions.

Taking stock

Prof Christine Loscher, a member of the national committee for Athena SWAN in Ireland, is part of the self-assessment team at Dublin City University, where she directs the Health Technologies Research & Enterprise Hub. She described the launch today as a great statement from the higher-education sector in Ireland.

“The universities and institutes of technology have worked collectively to say we need to have the Athena SWAN charter here, because we need to look inside our own universities and institutes of technology and see what are the problems and more importantly how can we address them,” Loscher tells

She notes that simple measures can have an impact, and points to a mentoring scheme for women that is currently in place in DCU.

“Having a mentor means somebody is there as a guide, a sounding board and in some cases an adviser, and it enables women to benefit from women who have been successful. Women need to be more strategic, and a mentoring scheme can facilitate that.”

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

Inspire 2015 is Silicon Republic’s international event running 18-19 June in Dublin that connects sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM with fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity. Buy your early bird tickets now

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication