Lack of women at senior level in Irish universities

 

Sir, – I have followed with interest the recent coverage of the under-representation of women at senior level in Irish universities (“Too few women at top levels in colleges, report shows”, Carl O’Brien, July 20th).

Despite the initiatives taken to encourage greater recognition of women at senior level, it would be optimistic to think the current culture can be changed easily to allow a recalibration.

We should scrutinise carefully the reasons for the clear discrepancy between the politically correct discourse aiming to promote greater representation of women at senior level and the disturbing reality.

For senior promotions, research caries a particularly high ranking.

In respect of this criterion in particular, both men and women are vulnerable to the same obstacle to securing senior promotion because of the basic promotions procedure: it is predicated in many institutions upon an undoubtedly well-intentioned but fundamentally flawed procedure whereby internal committees evaluating applications do not necessarily comprise experts in the applicant’s field and will readily (and astonishingly) discard the external references provided by eminent and undisputed experts in the field.

The feedback (if any is proffered) is, of course, intellectually worthless since it comes from non-specialists in the applicant’s field, but it will blithely state “must try harder” as if the committee had understood the value of the applicant’s research.

A further obstacle to attainment of senior promotions by both genders is the financial argument wielded by management in third-level institutions.

The argument that they are hard-pressed for money (an undeniable fact) has been used to implement a strict quota system which drastically reduces the opportunities for senior promotion.

The amounts of money set aside for senior promotions (astonishingly low in some institutions) should be reviewed in conjunction with an external body to permit a degree of objectivity. That said, the presidents and managers in the universities who make the decisions about quotas for senior promotions might be surprised to discover that many academics would forego a significant salary increment just to have the academic recognition that they deserve.

The third obstacle to senior promotion is arguably the most cynical: prejudice against colleagues (of either gender) who have, for example, spoken out about controversial issues or who have challenged various senior colleagues who can, and will, block their career advancement. Such individuals will rarely get promoted to senior positions despite a stellar academic record. Let us be under no illusion: prejudice, bullying, and harassment in the academic context persist despite the politically correct discourse and particularly in the current climate in which tenure is disappearing.

In the light of the above – undoubtedly some of the major causes of current low morale amongst academics who find themselves bereft of any opportunity for career advancement to senior level – the combatting of the bias against women being promoted to senior academic positions will be particularly difficult. For this to happen, a fundamental and genuine ethical shift in terms of governance is required by the third-level sector. – Yours, etc,

Dr SARAH ALYN STACEY,

FTCD,

Académie de Savoie,

Chevalier de l’ordre national

du mérite,

French Department,

Trinity College,

Dublin 2.