Universities sign up to gender equality charter

Colleges subject to robust rating in attempt to address claims of ‘systematic biases’

Ireland’s seven universities on Thursday signed up to a charter against gender inequality with the aim of boosting women’s participation in senior posts.

In a national initiative supported by the Higher Education Authority (HEA), the Athena SWAN charter which has been running in the United Kingdom since 2005 will be extended to Ireland.

As well as the seven universities, 14 institutes of technology and the Royal College of Surgeons are signing up to the charter committing them to advance women’s careers in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine.

Figures published by the HEA last December showed only 19 per cent of university professors are women. In institutions of technology, women make up 45 per cent of academic staff but just 29 per cent of senior academic staff.


In subjects such as physical science, mathematics, ICT and engineering the gender balance drops even further.

The Athena SWAN charter, run by UK higher education equality body Equality Challenge Unit (ECU), already has 124 members in that jurisdiction.

Participants commit to a set of principles and then receive awards based on whether they meet certain targets, subject to “a robust process of self-assessment” and peer review.

No institution has yet received a gold award but five have received silver, including Queens University, Belfast. Seven departments across all 124 institutions have received faculty gold awards and two of these are at Queens.

ECU researcher Dr Ruth Gilligan who is leading the pilot project in Ireland, said institutions here would be able to apply for awards from April onwards, noting the initiative had been shown to have a positive impact in the UK.

Dr Gilligan, a graduate of Science at UCD who subsequently did a PhD at Cambridge, said the challenge unit had discovered some science subjects were attracting more women than others but increasing such numbers did not necessary eliminate “systematic biases” in promotions.

The scheme is due to be rolled out to Arts and Humanities in the UK later this year.

A review of the Irish scheme will take place next year with a view to a similar extension.

Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan, who is launching the charter in Dublin this morning, said: “It is important that our higher level education sector fairly represents the diversity and innovation that are at the heart of Irish society.”

HEA chief executive Tom Boland said as well as supporting the creation of the charter here it was considering whether to conduct a "wide-ranging" review of equality policies at institutions.

Among the principles to which participants sign up are:


A commitment to address gender inequalities at all levels;


Changing cultures and attitudes across the organisation;


Examining diversity at management and policy-making levels;


Opposing short-term contracts which have negative consequences for the retention and progression of staff;


Tackling unfair treatment often experienced by transgender individuals.

Last week, NUI Galway announced the establishment of a taskforce to advise on policies, procedures and a "range of initiatives" related to achieving gender equality. This followed the successful Equality Tribunal action taken against the university by Dr Micheline Sheehy Skeffington.

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times and writer of the Unthinkable philosophy column