Our university promotions system is designed by men for men

Opinion: We need gender-competent leaders to ensure more women move upwards

The purpose of the 20 posts approved under the Senior Academic Leadership Initiative created by Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor was to improve the representation of women in senior positions in the Irish higher educational system.

This is an important objective both symbolically and practically. Universities, where 74 per cent of senior academic positions (professorships) are held by men, give an implicit message to women students and early career women that they have no future in these organisations. The practical implications are that there are few women in key decision-making fora. This in turn perpetuates a male-dominated system since people tend to appoint those like themselves. Such a system is unhelpful in terms of innovation and research output and is particularly unacceptable in publicly funded universities.

Figures just released by the Higher Education Authority show that women’s “chances” of accessing a professorship in Irish universities remain much lower than men’s (1:13 for women as compared to 1:5 for men). Assumptions that this simply reflects women’s maternity leave, caring activities, lack of ambition etc are difficult to sustain in the face of variation between different Irish universities in such chances: from 1:9 to 1:27 for women.

This variation between universities has been a consistent pattern since 2013. Change is happening in women’s chances, but very slowly – improving from 1:16 in 2013-2015 to 1:13 in 2018.

Women's chances of a professorship have been consistently lowest in NUI Galway – where it is 1:27, according to the most recent data. This is surprising given the flurry of activity there in the wake of the decision by the Equality Tribunal to award Micheline Sheehy Skeffington €75,000 following her successful case in 2014 and the settling of the remaining four cases by the university in 2018.

Men’s average chances of a professorship show very little variation between universities and have changed little since 2013.

Underlying systemic consensus

This is very different to the much lower and much wider range of variation in women’s chances of a professorship. It is almost as if there is some underlying systemic consensus that men are more entitled to a professorship.

Increases in the number of professorships in the recent data have facilitated slight improvements in women's chances, while men's chances have remained the same. Men's chances (at 1:4) have been consistently highest in University College Dublin.

The pace of change is clearly important and since 2013 this has also varied between universities. It has been fastest in Trinity College Dublin, where women's chances of a professorship increased from 1:21 in 2013-2015 to 1:12 in 2018.

The "new" universities, particularly Maynooth University and the University of Limerick, had an initial advantage and this was reflected in their proportion of women at full professorial level.

However, the pace of change in these universities has been slow since 2013. Indeed, the University of Limerick, which led the field before 2013, has shown very little improvement in women’s chances since then, while men’s chances actually improved in 2018.

This shows that progress is not inevitable and that constant vigilance is necessary if back-sliding is to be avoided.

Since the 2016 Expert Report on Gender Equality in Irish Higher Education, there has been an increasing awareness that the under-representation of women in senior academic positions reflects an organisational culture that favours men, a lack of gender competence among managerial leaders, as well as structures, criteria and practices that facilitate men’s successful application to these positions.

Tiny minority

Of course, a tiny minority of women have always accessed these positions: it was 5 per cent in mid 1970s; fell to 1 per cent in the early 1980s; rose to 4 per cent in the early 1990s; to 10 per cent in the early 2000s. By 2013-2015, it had risen to 19 per cent – and it is now 26 per cent.

The Senior Leadership Academic Initiative is a way of speeding up this process by targeting posts at those areas where women are particularly under-represented. It is an attempt to deal with a system which has– and indeed still is – designed by men for men. That system needs to be tackled by gender-competent leaders.

In the meantime, the Senior Leadership Initiative involving 45 posts (less than 10 per cent of the total number of professorial posts) will at least symbolically change the gender profile of those in senior academic positions. Whether or not this will change the system depends partly on the extent to which those appointed are committed to wider systemic change, and on the extent to which the men in power co-operate with that change.

Pat O’Connor is emeritus professor of sociology and social policy at University of Limerick and visiting professor, Geary Institute, University College Dublin.