Why we need more women at the top of higher education

An intractable gender imbalance persists at the most senior levels

The recent rush to balance the university books in order to demonstrate the existence of gender equality has, not surprisingly, proved more complex than many in leadership positions (mainly men) originally envisaged.

An economic imperative, whereby funding for universities is now linked to diversity targets, has contributed to the sudden enlightenment regarding the importance of gender equality within the higher educational landscape.

Minister of State for higher education, Mary Mitchell O' Connor, pledged at the European Conference on Gender Equality in Higher Education last month that future funding for higher education institutions would be tied to gender equality targets.

This follows a landmark report published by the Higher Education Authority in June 2016 that resulted in the establishment of a gender equality task force, whose report is due soon.


The Technological Higher Education Association, which represents institutions of technology, has also produced a gender and diversity statement.

The gender equality narrative is, however, running alongside and in collision with a neoliberal managerialist impetus that has gripped higher education since the 1990s.

The latter is a narrative, like all powerful narratives, driven by economics. The contraction of an exchequer funding base has meant that universities have had to reinvent themselves in order to survive in a post-industrial, global knowledge economy, embracing private sector norms in the process.

This appetite to compete within a globalised education market place has strengthened managerialist practices, lost sight of the notion of education as a public good in favour of fiscal efficiency, measured outputs and marketable practices.

Rhetoric of equality

While symbols of diversity and a sophisticated rhetoric of equality have of late permeated the discourse of higher educational institutions, the practice of diversity and equality struggle to compete with more powerful and ultimately profitable neoliberal ideologies, the underbelly of the protean, entrepreneurial university.

The under-representation of women in senior positions in higher education is not unique to Ireland but is an international phenomenon.

In the Irish context, the issue of gender equality in higher education has in the past three years reached the active policy agenda, largely as a result of a number of high-profile legal cases and a recent policy imperative to wed funding to diversity targets.

What has become clear is that despite the advances women have made in terms of their participation rate as undergraduates, as well as the introduction of gender equity policies, an intractable gender imbalance persists in relation to the number of women at senior level in higher education.

It is now almost universally accepted that this cannot be attributed to the absence of skills, abilities or aspirations of women, rather multiple systemic barriers have been shown to exist within the organisation and culture of third-level institutions that have impeded women’s progression into senior academic leadership roles.

The seemingly insurmountable nature of these barriers is not surprising given their historical reach and cultural embeddedness.

Gendered ideology

Irish universities have been, from their very establishment, bastions of male and middle-class privilege.

Throughout the 19th century, the power base of the university worked hard to resist women’s inclusion, and even with the advent of co-education, women continued to experience marginalisation, both as students and academics.

Discrimination within the university arena historically mirrored discrimination against women across a range of behemoths and social structures most trenchant in the early decades of Irish independence.

A deeply gendered ideology, which placed women firmly within the home sphere, was shored up through a formidable alliance between the State and the Catholic Church.

While present-day Irish society is significantly altered from the early decades of political independence, significant residual gender bias is undoubtedly still evident. Article 41.2 of the Constitution, the “woman in the home clause” is one example of this gender stereotyping, and recent calls for its removal are understandable and timely.

Although effectively a dead letter constitutionally in contemporary Ireland, the very existence of Article 41.2 is indicative of a profoundly paternalistic culture and a deeply restrictive climate for women.

No female university president

In the history of university education in Ireland, there has never been a female university president. At college level, there is currently one female president, while there are three female presidents in the institute of technology sector.

Women represent 24 per cent of the professoriate, an increase of 1 per cent since 2015.

Women typically earn less than their male colleagues, with men accounting for the vast majority of the highest-paid posts in higher education.

As part of Ireland's cultural shift to address gender equality, the Athena Swan Charter was launched in 2015.

Originally conceived as a means to acknowledge and encourage gender equality in Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) areas, this charter has expanded to embrace all areas of university activity.

There is now a requirement that all Irish higher education institutions will secure Athena Swan bronze awards (indicative of a commitment to examining issues around gender equality and the development of a plan to address them) by the end of 2019 to entitle them to apply for research funding from Science Foundation Ireland, the Irish Research Council and the Health Research Board.

While initiatives such as Athena Swan are to be welcomed, even where governance explicitly includes attention to gender equality, its impact on overcoming gender discrimination is not always evident.

Why gender equality matters

The social and economic benefits of gender equality are now widely accepted. Gender equality is considered fundamental to the fostering of creativity and innovation, cornerstones of a vibrant and successful higher education landscape.

Meaningful engagement with and investment in gender equality optimises the pursuit of excellence, positions higher education institutions as social, economic and cultural leaders and reduces the echo chamber factor.

Yet the achievement of gender equality continues to elude across many sectors, not just higher education.

Latest official figures demonstrate that the under-representation of women across higher education institutions persists, despite the introduction of a raft of equality legislation, a more deliberative policy thrust and even a cultural shift across many institutions.

While providing a counter-discourse to the groupthink that has allowed this situation to continue unchallenged, the data also throws into sharp relief the manner in which gender inequality is historically embedded within the higher education sector and the scale of the challenges facing higher education leaders.

Prof Judith Harford is vice-principal for equality, diversity and inclusion in the College of Law and Social Sciences, University College Dublin

These issues will be examined in a forthcoming symposium on gender equality in higher education, funded by the Irish Research Council, and taking place in the Royal Irish Academy on October 10th