We need your help now

Support from readers like you keeps The Journal open.

You are visiting us because we have something you value. Independent, unbiased news that tells the truth. Advertising revenue goes some way to support our mission, but this year it has not been enough.

If you've seen value in our reporting, please contribute what you can, so we can continue to produce accurate and meaningful journalism. For everyone who needs it.

Third Level

Women in academia: 'What women get is endless mentoring, instead of a focus on changing the structures'

Academia is no longer dominated by men, with women making up more than half of lecturers. But problems remain across third-level in Ireland.

THE TRADITIONAL PICTURE of academia as a bastion of male dominance is far from the current reality in Irish higher education.

Four of the country’s universities are now led by women – no mean feat given that the first female university president was only appointed a year and a half ago. Women also account for more than half of lecturers, according to a report by the HEA, making the days of all-male departments seem a distant history.

But these figures only tell part of the story, and in other ways progress has been slow.
Take the highest academic ranks, which are still a long way from gender parity. Only 27% of professors in Irish universities are female, according to the same HEA report, with research showing that women are less likely to be moved up to the highest faculty level. The gender gap can be seen at the other end of the scale as well. Women and minorities are over-represented in precarious academic jobs, while permanent full-time contracts are disproportionately held by men.

Recents efforts to improve gender diversity have included a requirement that universities have equality action plans in order to receive research funding. “That’s been a real driver of change,” says Ross Woods of the Higher Education Authority’s Centre of Excellence for Gender Equality. “We’ve made it clear that the money will only be there once certain commitments are made, and you do see the difference once financial repercussions are raised.”

Funding has also been made available for women-only professorships under the Senior Academic Leadership Initiative (SALI) launched in 2019, which has so far awarded 30 of these positions. The confirmed posts are in fields such as computer science, engineering and cyber security, where women have traditionally been poorly represented.

Professor Pat O’Connor, professor emeritus of sociology and social policy at the University of Limerick, believes such measures are symbolically important. However, she says universities are still dragging their heels on wider reforms. She points out, for example, that the recommended cascade model – whereby the proportion of women being promoted is based on the proportion of women in the next grade under – has not been implemented in the past for senior positions.

The sense of male identification and camaraderie that prevails in academia also means more men are encouraged to go for promotion, according to O’Connor. “What women get instead is endless mentoring. ‘Change yourself’ is the message. ‘Change how you dress and present yourself. Change how you speak; speak louder or softer, or don’t talk so much.’ The focus isn’t on changing the actual structures that work against women.”

Another issue is the stereotyping of roles within universities. O’Connor says “career cul-de-sacs” with poor prospects for promotion – jobs that emphasise pastoral care and teaching – tend to be considered particularly suitable for women. “The workload models themselves incorporate gendered assumptions.” Then there are what she calls “legitimating discourses”: the loaded terms used to justify why women are underrepresented at senior levels. “That idea of ‘excellence’ is one of the common explanations. It’s a word that seems objective and clearly defined, but really it’s codswallop.”

People in leadership need to challenge these biases, she says. “The criteria for appointment to line management positions at all levels should include evidence of promoting gender equality, and not just in rhetoric.”

view-of-south-facade-showing-plaza-irish-world-academy-of-music-and-dance-limerick-ireland-architect-daniel-cordier-2010 Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Women’s advocates say the issue of precarious work has to be addressed too. Arjumand Younus is a research scientist who recently left higher education for more secure employment in industry. She still teaches as an hourly-paid lecturer at TU Dublin, but she sees few opportunities in the sector beyond short-term precarious contracts.

“I used to get rejection emails and think I must be lacking something,” she says. “Now I’m starting to feel confident that it’s not a reflection on me. The problem is systemic”

Younous found Covid a particularly challenging time to be in academia. “It was very hard to juggle childcare with the post-doc [research done after the completion of a PhD] I was doing. My husband tried his best, but he had just started a new lecturing role so it was a hectic time for him. I had to have meetings with our three-year-old crying in my lap.”

Although her managers were supportive, Younous did sense resentment among others on the team. “There were occasions when some of your teammates would be frustrated about not having met deadlines,” she says. “The solution I came up with was to work when the children were sleeping. I took a nap with them when they went to bed and then worked until the early hours of the morning.”

Younous is now a co-director of Women in Research Ireland, a volunteer-run charity that advocates for better female representation in academia. She is encouraged by improvements in senior leadership, but wants to see more practical measures to support researchers with caring responsibilities – more affordable on-site childcare being a good start.

O’Connor has seen a good deal of progress since becoming the first woman to be appointed a full professor at Limerick in 1997. What hasn’t changed, she says, is the power of subtly sexist thinking. “Women want a level playing field – we don’t want to be victims or special cases – but patriarchy is very embedded. To unwind it is a complicated task. It can be done, but the question is this: do men want to do it as well?”

 This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

Catherine Healy
Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel