Greater diversity needed in Royal Irish Academy in order to be ‘relevant’

Review finds RIA considered by some to be ‘old fashioned’ and ‘an old boys club’

The Royal Irish Academy on Dawson Street, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The Royal Irish Academy on Dawson Street, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

There is a need for change and greater diversity within the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) in order for the academic body to be “relevant to Irish society today,” a report commissioned by the body has found.

The diversity review was commissioned by the RIA in May in a bid to boost female participation in the academic body, which was established in 1785 to promote science and the humanities. It was published on Tuesday.

The review panel said it had heard “too many times” that the RIA was “old fashioned, not relevant, an ‘old boys club’, with limited influence, and not an institution to aspire to belong to,” the report said.

Only 121 women are in the 637-member academy, almost one-fifth of the total. They include former president Mary Robinson, former chief justice Susan Denham, former editor of The Irish Times Geraldine Kennedy, and economist Frances Ruane.

The panel was asked to identify barriers to increasing diversity and make recommendations to foster greater diversity in future elections of new members.

The review was led by former University of Edinburgh vice-principal Lesley Yellowlees.

A survey conducted as part of the review noted that nearly 40 per cent of those who took part stated that the RIA was “dominated by older white males.”

Other themes that emerged were perceptions of the RIA as “old-fashioned, outdated or elitist” and some respondents indicated that, while gender diversity has improved, other forms of diversity (such as age, discipline, class, ethnicity, and politics) still needed to be addressed.

Diversity

The recent “dearth of women attaining RIA membership” highlighted “possible problems within the membership process that are also reflected in underrepresentation of other groups within the membership,” the report stated.

There was strong support for the need for change within the RIA. For the RIA to be “relevant to Irish society today” and to be truly inclusive, changes “will be necessary in how the RIA selects members,” it said.

“Diversity is an issue of central importance to the academy, and I am committed to strengthening the diversity of its membership. A more diverse academy is a stronger academy,” Dr Mary Canning, RIA president said.

The report made ten recommendations including making it a “number one priority” to tackle equality, diversity and inclusion issues.

It recommended that academic excellence should remain the key criterion for RIA membership but achievement in publication “should not be the primary selection tool”.

Instead, more weight should be given to factors such as societal impact, leadership and teamwork.

Increasing the number of nominations for membership from underrepresented groups was also a key recommendation.

“The RIA needs to better reflect the academic landscape in the whole of Ireland, and thus the RIA would want to encourage proposals of membership from academics from Technological Universities and interdisciplinary areas,” the report said.

The report also strongly recommended the establishment of a “young academy” for early-career researchers which would “encourage applications from across the higher education sector but also from private industry.”

The RIA will open the call for membership of the young academy in January 2022.

Vice-president of the RIA Professor Anita Maguire welcomed the report and said it gave the RIA “the tools to make the Academy a more inclusive space that reflects the higher education landscape in Ireland today.”

Professor Maguire will chair the implementation group which has already begun its work.

The full report and recommendations are now available at the RIA’s website.