The great divide: why are there so few senior female academics?

A new report aims to transform gender equality in Irish universities

Dr Micheline Sheehy-Skeffington: “This case was never just about me.” Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Dr Micheline Sheehy-Skeffington: “This case was never just about me.” Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

 

Are women in academia about to get a fair crack of the whip?

Today, a national review of gender equality in Ireland’s third-level institutions, chaired by former EU commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, is due to be published.

It is widely expected that it will call for major changes to bring about gender equality in Irish universities.

The national panel was constituted following a successful case taken by NUI Galway botany lecturer Dr Micheline Sheehy-Skeffington, who was awarded €70,000 when the Equality Tribunal found she had been discriminated against solely because of her gender.

There is a much wider concern about the low number of women rising to the top in academia throughout Ireland. So, what’s gone wrong in Irish higher education, why does this matter, and are we really about to see change?

Geoghegan-Quinn’s report arrives hot on the heels of NUIG’s decision in May to adopt the recommendations of its own taskforce on gender equality. This was chaired by Prof Jane Grimson, the first ever female vice-provost of Trinity College Dublin.

NUIG has now agreed to implement 24 recommendations, including appointing a vice- president for equality and diversity and unconscious gender bias training for staff.

There will also be mandatory gender quotas for committees and senior academic posts through a “cascade” system; this means that the number of women eligible for promotion will be based on the proportion at the grade below.

Grimson is highly accomplished but, she says, her success in no way should be used to suggest that other women have equal opportunities.

Negative experience

“I feel I have been lucky in my career. My husband played a full part in rearing the children and I had senior male mentors who really supported me. But the majority of women have had a much more negative experience than me.

“Yes, the days of the marriage bar and that level of gross discrimination are gone, but what women experience is a series of little obstacles that all add up and make it difficult for them to progress.”

The problems are particularly acute in academia, and Galway really took their eye off the ball, she says.

“The metrics used to measure success, such as citations and membership of editorial boards, have a gender dimension. They are built around existing networks, so if someone is being added to a board, it’s more likely that it will be man.

“Because women generally have the primary caring responsibilities they will often miss out on those international conferences. It’s not designed to be discriminatory and often the bias is unconscious, but it virtually always benefits men rather than women. The onus is on the people in those networks to be inclusive as they can, and to look outside their current pool of friends.”

Sheehy-Skeffington welcomes NUIG’s decision to adopt Grimson’s recommendation on the cascade gender quota system. However, she says the university has a long way to go and is still refusing to acknowledge past wrongs, particularly in its treatment of five female lecturers who were not promoted and are taking cases against it.

NUIG says it cannot talk about these cases as they are currently going through the courts, but it is not showing any signs of backing down.

Grimson also accepts that, as long as these cases are still ongoing, “it remains an issue”.

More recently, NUIG ratcheted up the heat by threatening legal action over a blog run by Sheehy-Skeffington’s supporters which made a series of allegations about how the university is handling these outstanding cases.

Gender quotas

“This case was never just about me,” says Sheehy-Skeffington. “The changes in NUIG might not have happened but for the courage and persistence of the five women taking cases.”

What of the argument that quotas will see capable men passed over for promotion in favour of less capable women?

“I don’t like gender quotas, but they are an essential temporary measure,” says Sheehy-Skeffington. “Hopefully they will improve equality and then won’t be necessary any more. But ultimately change has to come from the president down and we need to see a change in attitudes.”

The problem is bigger than NUIG. When it comes to gender equality at third-level within the EU, only Malta is worse than Ireland.

“What’s more likely: that the female academics in Ireland are not as good as their European counterparts, or that they are being frozen out?” she asks.

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