Women in science and academia

Sir, – I read with interest the article by Aine McMahon on women in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem), in which she quoted the views of Regina Moran, representing the corporate world, and Christine Loscher, representing academia ("Successful career in Stem field now more achievable for women", November 10th).

Like Regina Moran, I too am a former president of Engineers Ireland and, like Christine Loscher, I have spent most of my working life in academia. While the challenges both to the individual and to their employer of ensuring an appropriate work-life balance are similar, there appears to be a significant gap between the corporate and academic sectors in addressing the issue. The corporate world is leading the way in recognising the importance of gender balance – and diversity more generally – at senior management and board levels.

The growing body of evidence consistently shows that companies that have more gender-balanced senior management teams and boards are more successful. The corporate world is therefore beginning to be convinced as to the benefits that gender diversity brings.

By contrast in academia, there is at best only limited evidence of such conviction. The hundreds, if not thousands, of initiatives that have been implemented in universities across the globe have largely been driven by what might be loosely termed the social justice and human rights argument in favour of gender equality, rather than the quality argument – namely that greater gender equality drives quality improvement through enriching decision-making and increasing creativity and innovation.

The social justice approach tends to focus on strategies to “fix the women” whereas those based around quality focus on “fixing the system”. Thus while supporting the principle of the need for greater equality, many in academia, including many women, strongly oppose any initiative which smacks of positive discrimination as undermining a key academic principle of meritocracy.

This raises the issue of the criteria that are used to define merit in the first place, and here all the evidence points to these being gendered in a number of, often quite subtle, ways which have the cumulative effect of bias in favour of men. The result is that there has only been limited progress towards eliminating gender inequality in academia and the pace of change has been glacial. Only 21 per cent of full professors across the EU are female; in Ireland in 2015, the figure was 19 per cent, in spite of the fact that 50 per cent of lecturers and 53 per cent of undergraduates across the universities are female.

It needs to be accepted that this "leaky pipeline" of academia represents a tremendous loss of talent, creativity and innovation. Governments across the world are growing increasingly concerned at the slow progress in addressing gender inequality in higher education and are moving from encouragement (carrots) to sticks in which funding is linked to progress. The recently published Higher Education Authority National Review of Gender Equality in Irish Higher Education Institutions includes such a recommendation.

Similarly, funding agencies are beginning to require institutions to demonstrate that they are tackling the issue before being eligible to apply for funding.

This, of course, is highly controversial and brings, among many others, the risk of good researchers – both male and female – being denied funding for their research because of shortcomings in their own institution. But eliminating gender inequality in academia is a complex task and requires complex solutions at the heart of which is changing the culture, including how success and excellence are measured, to one which is no longer based on the male norm developed over the centuries, to one which is inclusive and supports and encourages everyone to reach their full potential.

It is true that gender inequality is deeply embedded within society as a whole, and therefore universities can with some justification assert that they cannot act on their own. However, universities are supposed to be bastions of enlightenment and should surely be at the forefront of leading change instead of apparently lagging behind the corporate world. – Yours, etc,



Athena Swan (Scientific

Women’s Academic

Network) Self-Assessment


Fellow Emerita

and Professor of Health


Trinity College Dublin.