Third-level institutions risk funding being withheld if they fail to introduce mandatory gender quotas to increase the number of women in senior positions.
This is one of a number of measures contained in a major report on gender equality by an expert groupwhich was commissioned by the Higher Education Authority.
While men and women are equally represented within universities and colleges in Ireland, women are significantly under-represented in senior roles.
Since the establishment of the first Irish university more than 400 years ago, there has never been a female president.
Overall, while about 50 per cent of lecturers in Irish universities are women, only 19 per cent of professors are women.
The expert group’s chair, former EU commissioner Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, said the issue needed to be urgently tackled for social, economic and equality reasons.
“In undertaking this review, we quickly realised that the ‘fix the women’ approach, aimed at getting women to change to fit the existing culture, will not work,” she said.
“Gender balance in top leadership positions will not be achieved in our lifetimes if we just wait for change to naturally occur” she said.
Key measures to tackle gender inequality include:
* Mandatory gender quotas for academic promotion, based on the ‘cascade model’, where the proportion of women and men to be recruited is based on the proportion of each gender at the grade immediately below;
* State funding to be linked to institutions’ performance in tackling gender inequality
* All candidates for presidential appointments at third level must demonstrate experience of leadership in advancing gender equality, and this will be included in the recruitment criteria;
* Each third level college will appoint a vice-president for equality, who will be a full academic member of the executive management team and who will report directly to the president.
* Key decision-making bodies in colleges must be gender balanced
The Higher Education Authority's chief executive Tom Boland said a failure to significantly narrow the gender gap in the past showed the need for more "radical" approaches to tackling this issue.
He strongly endorsed the report’s proposals and said the authority will work with institutions to develop detailed implementation plans.
They will form part of the “compact” agreements which colleges negotiate with universities and will occur in three-year phases.
“It will include a robust system of follow-up evaluation and performance monitoring linked to funding through the HEA’s strategic dialogue process,” he said.
Research shows that the under-representation of women in senior roles in academia is an issue right across Europe.
Ms Geoghegan-Quinn said the new measures could help ensure Ireland becomes a “world leader” in gender equality.
Most university and college presidents were broadly welcoming of the report’s proposals. However some said targets may be difficult to achieve in a short period of time given limited promotional opportunities linked to funding shortages.
A survey of almost 5,000 individuals, mostly linked to the third level sector, indicates there are major differences among men and women over the issue.
While some 64 per cent of women indicated gender inequality was present, this compared to 38 per cent among men.
The Irish Federation of University Teachers welcomed the proposals, but said dedicated resources were required to t implement them.
However, Joan Donegan, the federation's deputy general secretary, said the report did not address the issue of current staff who have been discriminated against or those engaged in various legal and Labour Court initiatives to address past discrimination.
She also said many issues other than direct discrimination prevent women’s progression in academia, as in other sections of society.
“The absence of adequate childcare policies and options continues to be a major factor in blocking women’s participation and progression in the workforce,” Ms Donegan said.