The everyday reality of gender imbalance at professor level at third level

New research into gender equality demonstrates how the age, size or location of an Irish higher education institution has very little to do with striking a balance at the top

Tue, Mar 18, 2014, 02:00

Pat O’Connor was the first woman to be appointed at full professorial level – of sociology and social policy – in the University of Limerick (UL) in 1997. Almost two decades on, her new book Management and Gender in Higher Education (Manchester University Press, to be published in May 2014) focuses on the number of women working at professor and senior management level in Ireland’s universities.

O’Connor broaches the subject from a particularly good vantage point. At 39 per cent, UL boasts the highest rate of female professors and associate professors in Ireland, according to her research. The national average is around 19 per cent.

This is a comprehensive study, with some of her figures going back to 1976 when the Marriage Bar was removed (it prohibited women working in secondary teaching and the civil service from continuing employment after marriage). It shows that while the gender imbalance in academia is less pronounced, women are under-represented at the highest levels.

“Severe inequality persists at senior academic grades, which is a cause for concern, but we have a very encouraging trajectory of improvement towards gender equality in higher education,” says Muiris O’Connor, head of policy and strategic planning at the Higher Education Authority (HEA). “We see it improving at all grades and this has been consistent since the late 1990s. That being said, we expected it to happen sooner because females are better educated than males and have been for some time. They form higher numbers of our graduates, and their share of academic positions more generally would indicate that they should be getting towards a fairer position at the higher grades.”

An upward trend is what the HEA, which has an obligation to promote equality, foresees continuing in Irish higher education.

But Ireland is similar to many other countries in Europe. “Figures from the EU show that women account for 20 per cent of professors and associates in Europe,” says O’Connor. “The national average is not that different. Still, progress has been slow. At UL, however, the proportion at professor level has changed dramatically over a 15-year period.”

UL’s growth rate might be impressive, but the national average is still left wanting. There are a number of potential reasons for this.

“One issue that is often overlooked is that senior (including professorial) posts are increasingly defined in a way that assumes people at that level have a care-free life,” says Kathleen Lynch, a professor of equality studies at UCD and author of New Managerialism in Education: Commercialisation, Carelessness and Gender (2012).

“There is a widespread expectation in academia that you can work 24/7 at your university job. But women are society’s default care workers so 24/7 working is not a realistic option, even if they meet the eligibility criteria for a professorship.

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