The first of up to 45 women-only professorships aimed at tacking gender inequality in higher education are due to be made before the end of this year.
Minister of State for higher education Mary Mitchell O’Connor on Friday officially opened applications to the what is called the “senior academic leadership initiative.”
Ms Mitchell O’Connor said the move was “truly a game-changing moment in Irish academia” and would help ensure a “swifter gender re-balance” at the highest levels of our institutions.
She also praised the excellence of female academics and their “vast contribution to research and education” and expressed disappointment that this had not yet resulted “in an appropriate level of representation of women at the highest levels”.
Latest figures show women remain under-represented at senior levels in higher education and especially in the university sector.
While women make up about half of university lecturers, they account for just under a quarter of professors.
There has also never been a female university president in more than 400 years of higher education.
It is likely that the first of 15 or so women-only professorships will be announced in November. The total of 45 posts are set to allocated over a three-year period.
The appointments will be confined to areas where there is “clear evidence” of significant under-representation of women, such as science or engineering.
Ms Mitchell O’Connor’s initiative sparked controversy in some quarters over whether they flouted long-standing recruitment policies which promote equality of opportunity for men and women.
However, the Attorney General is reported to have confirmed that the initiative is consistent with EU and national employment and equality law.
Under the scheme, higher education institutions must develop a gender action plan and show progression on their gender equality objectives and targets before securing funding for additional posts under the new initiative.
While there has been progress in narrowing the gender gap in recent years, a gender equality taskforce estimated last year that it could take up to 20 years to achieve a gender balance minimum of 40 per cent females at professor level at the current pace of change.
The Technological Higher Education Association " warmly embraced the spirit" behind the initiative.
"The technological higher education institutions are well placed to take full advantage of these new posts," said Dr Joseph Ryan, chief executive of the association.
“We look forward to answering the call with applications that are interdisciplinary in nature and which will enhance the management teams in our institutions, and help to prepare higher education institutions to meet the challenges ahead.”
In a statement, the Irish Universities Association also welcomed the initiative and said members were " enthusiastic about engaging in this positive initiative to address the gender imbalance at senior academic level."