Gender inequality remains a serious barrier to female progression in academia

We need to double down on recent progress rather than consider the problem fixed

In 2016, the chair of the expert group that conducted the Higher Education Authority’s (HEA) national review of gender equality in Irish higher education, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, noted that “the passion and commitment to tackling gender inequality demonstrated by a wide range of stakeholders, has inspired us with great confidence that our recommendations will be fully embraced and that gender equality in Irish higher education will be achieved in the years ahead”.

Much has happened since the publication of that landmark review, with the HEA linking research funding eligibility to progress on gender equality, institutions establishing equality, diversity and inclusion units, and the appointment of the first female university presidents.

The recent announcement of Dr Orla Flynn as president of the soon to be established Atlantic TU will bring gender balance to senior leadership positions across the nation's 12 universities.

However, the fact remains that gender inequality is a serious barrier to female progression in academia and this may be exacerbated by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is in this context, that the HEA is today launching a follow up review of gender equality in Irish higher education institutions (HEIs).

The expert group conducting the review, which will be chaired by former secretary general of the Department of Social Protection, Niamh O'Donoghue, includes national and international expertise in the area of gender equality. These experts, some of whom have first-hand experience of leading on equality work in Irish HEIs, will assess what has worked – and more importantly what has not – since 2016.

While cultural and systemic obstacles to female progression in academia remain, there have been significant institutional efforts to implement the recommendations of the 2016 expert group. The universal adoption of gender equality action plans and the number of dedicated staff working in the area shows a substantive commitment to cultural change and there is a need to acknowledge and encourage this work.

In 2018, the Gender Equality Taskforce laid out a vision that "by 2026 Ireland will be a world-leading country for gender equality in higher education". A recent report by the European Research Area's standing working group on gender in research and innovation notes Ireland as an EU exemplar in relation to the use of gender equality plans as a national policy instrument.

Data gathered by the HEA demonstrates that significant progress has been made since 2016, particularly in relation to the headline issue of female professors in our universities.

The professoriate has risen from 532 professors in 2015 to 642 in 2020. The number of female professors has risen by 69, from 109 to 178, while the number of male professors has risen by 41, from 423 to 464. Encouragingly, of the 110 new professors in the system, females represent 63 per cent of this increase. Professorial recruitment statistics compiled by the HEA between 2018-2020 showed significant success rates for women, with females making up 26 per cent of applicants yet representing 44 per cent of appointments, and males made up 70 per cent of applicants yet representing 51 per cent of appointments.

The gender-proofing of recruitment practices was a central recommendation for institutions in 2016. Initiatives implemented to promote gender equality in recruitment and promotion include delivery of equality and diversity training for all staff members acting as interview panellists or conducting performance reviews and a mandatory minimum of 40 per cent of each gender on interview and selection panels. New policies have been developed on flexible and agile working. Such policies have never been more important, as the balancing of caring responsibilities with the new and unique demands of hybrid working become a more prominent equality issue.

Equality policies

One of the major advances in Irish HEIs in recent years in relation to equality has been a broadening out of gender equality work to encapsulate other grounds of discrimination under Irish legislation. Indeed, the work on the ground is often much more innovative and reacts in real time to demands of staff.

Such an intersectional approach was missing from the 2016 review, due mainly to a lack of staff demographic data in any area other than gender. The ground-breaking report on race equality in higher education published by the HEA last year has given a baseline to address issues in that area. However, in the absence of statistics – an issue which will be addressed by the forthcoming HEA legislation – the higher education sector has not stood still.

What began as gender equality policies are now equality policies. The development of progressive, equality-proofed initiatives will benefit everyone and ensure that HEIs are maximising the potential of all staff, regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or disability status etc. This focus on inclusive gender equality needs to be a feature of future policy decisions.

In order to consolidate the work pioneered by the 2016 review, it is now clear that the higher education sector needs to intensify its efforts to advance gender equality, lest the gains of recent years be lost following the setback of the Covid-19 pandemic. With this in mind, the expert group will produce a report that makes five to 10 high-level recommendations as to how, in their view, higher education institutions might enhance their equality policies and their implementation to support gender-equality.

Real change – systemic, cultural change – does not come easily or quickly. While the advances in recent years have been welcome, there is now a need to double down on this work, rather than consider the problem fixed.

Dr Ross Woods is head of the Higher Education Authority's centre of excellence for equality, diversity and inclusion