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Action Plan

45 women-only posts to be created in third-level education to address gender imbalance

Mary Mitchell O’Connor said the positions will be for world-class academics and are not ‘easy jobs’.

THE GOVERNMENT IS set to create 45 female-only senior academic roles within the higher education sector over the next three years.

The move is part of a wider plan which aims to increase the level of female representation in third-level education.

Research by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) highlights that in 2017 just over half (51%) of lecturers were female, while only 24% of professor posts were filled by women.

Speaking at the launch of the Gender Equality Action Plan for Higher Education Institutions 2018-2020 in Dublin today, Minister for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor said these statistics have “kept me up at night” and she is determined to change them.

“Data analysis carried out by the Gender Equality Taskforce in the Action Plan shows that on present trends, if institutions continue with current practices, it could take more than 20 years to achieve 40% gender balance at professorial level. This would be an unacceptable scenario to which a decisive response is now imperative…

Today I firmly pin my colours to the mast, 40% of those at full professorial level in our public universities will be women by 2024.

Mitchell O’Connor said 15 female-only roles will be created per year for the next three years, with €0.8 million being spent on the plan in the first year, €2.4 million in the second year and up to €6 million the following year.

The junior minister said the first roles will likely be in place by September 2019 and will be in institutions which have proven their need for such positions. She said highly qualified women sometimes don’t make it through the interview stage for a job because of both conscious and unconscious bias.

‘Not easy jobs’ 

Mitchell O’Connor said she’s used to being criticised in her role but is committed to the plan as the lack of female representation at the highest level of third-level education is not good enough and gives the wrong impression to young women.

“They’re not ‘easy jobs’. These are for world-class academics but they’re gender-specific. 51% of lecturers are female and only 25% are getting to the top professorial level.

“It’s also a really bad message for our young people and our young girls coming in to these hallowed halls of education.

What does education mean? Opportunity. And yet here we are, telling these young girls once they come in the door of such universities, ‘Sorry, but you know what, girls and senior academic women won’t get promoted in this institution.’

Legal challenges 

Mitchell O’Connor said she’s “not concerned” about potential legal challenges to the roles, noting she has taken “very strong legal advice” from the Attorney General and has examined relevant European case law, adding: “I’m sure that that advice is very robust and will stand up to legal challenges.”

As part of the plan, Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) will have to set “ambitious short, medium and long-term targets” (one, three and five years) in order to progress gender equality. They will also have to give the HEA an annual gender breakdown of staff and committees.

HEA block grant funding will be linked to an institution’s performance in addressing gender inequality, with Mitchell O’Connor saying that up to 10% of an institution’s core funding could be affected in what she called a “carrot and stick approach”.

Mixed feelings

Speaking at the launch, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said gender inequality is “deeply ingrained” in Irish society, and that misogyny is holding Ireland and the world back.

“We know that diversity and broad representation leads to better decision-making and a more productive environment and workforce.”

He said the government is “committed to equality between men and women”, citing gender pay gap legislation and the introduction of paid parental leave as examples of this.

Now we want to ensure we have a more effective and inclusive higher education sector. Female role models in positions of authority will encourage and inspire female students to aspire to holding the top jobs in their future workplace.

Varadkar said he’s aware some senior academics have “mixed feelings” about the introduction of female-only roles, admitting it is “quite a radical measure” but adding that it’s necessary to address such established gender imbalance.

The report notes that international experience has shown that achieving gender equality is “neither linear nor guaranteed, and the rate of improvement at senior levels in HEIs internationally is extremely slow”.

It states that countries which “have made considerable efforts to improve their gender equality still show significant under-representation of women at professor level” (eg in 2016: France, 24%; Germany, 23%; Switzerland, 21%; and in 2017: Norway, 29%).

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