Will a woman provost of Trinity College Dublin make any difference?

Structure and culture of universities are effectively designed by men for men

After 429 years, the male dominance of the leadership of Irish universities has been shattered with the election of Linda Doyle as provost of Trinity College. Women now head up four of the 10 universities, or 40 per cent. It is a striking figure when compared with the European average of 14 per cent. This will help break the equation between masculinity and power and it is symbolically important. But will it make a difference?

In recent times, the disciplinary backgrounds of the university leaders have overwhelmingly been in science, engineering and medicine. Three of the four women leaders are in those areas.

Kersten May, the president of the University of Limerick, is the exception, with a background in humanities, and is the only interim appointment.

Only Doyle is Irish: May is German; Maggie Cusack at the Munster Technological University is from the UK; and Eeva Leoinen at Maynooth University is from Finland.


In electing Doyle, Trinity academics chose the more traditional disciplinary background of engineering, rather than history or theology as exemplified by the other candidates, Linda Hogan (professor of ecumenics) and Jane Ohlmeyer (professor of modern history). An Irish woman from a female-dominated disciplinary background has yet to be appointed.

Will Doyle and her fellow women leaders be able to make a difference to women’s under-representation at professorial level? Progress to date has been steady but slow: increasing from 19 per cent in 2013-2015 to 26 per cent in 2019 (marginally above the EU average of 24 per cent).

Professorship ‘chances’

However women’s “chances” of getting a professorship in Irish universities are still only 1:13 as compared with a 1:5 “chance” for men. Women’s “chances” vary between universities (from 1:24 to 1:9) and they vary over time. If the crucial thing was that women bear children; have maternity leave; are less confident; less politically astute etc, this variation should not exist. The fact that it does exist suggests that it is something about universities rather than women that is crucial.

A new era started when Micheline Sheehy Skeffington won her gender discrimination case against NUI Galway in 2014 and was awarded €70,000 which she gave to the five other women who had been shortlisted but not promoted there in 2008-2009. Settlements were reached between all five of these women and NUI Galway by 2018.

There have been a number of initiatives since then. Athena Swan, a gender-equality mark for higher education institutions, was introduced in 2015 and is linked to research funding.

The Expert Review on Gender Equality in Irish Higher Education Institutions was undertaken by the Higher Education Authority in 2016. It included on online survey of just under 5,000 people which highlighted a misogynistic old boys’ culture. Its recommendations included a quota of 40 per cent of those at professorial level to be women by 2024 and the linking of State funding to the gender profile of senior positions. The task force report in 2018 reiterated these recommendations.

A senior leadership initiative was introduced in 2019. It created 45 senior positions in areas where women were under-represented. More recently there have been initiatives to deal with sexual harassment.

But men’s “chances” of a professorship have not changed. They have been 1:5 since 2013-2015 and they vary little between universities (1:4 to 1:7).

Research priority

The structure and culture of universities are effectively designed by men for men. Universities continue to value male-dominated staff areas (eg engineering and ICT) more than female-dominated ones (eg nursing and midwifery). One reflection of this is that there are more professorial posts in male-dominated staff areas “in the national interest”, frequently aided by Science Foundation Ireland.

The criteria for recruitment and promotion in universities officially includes teaching, research and service – but in practice research is prioritised. Men are likely to produce more publications; have higher citations and more research funding – at least partly because they are men in male-dominated institutions.

Recruitment practices frequently lack transparency (not only in Ireland but in Denmark and the Netherlands for example). Predominantly male boards increase men’s “chances” of a professorship. Both men and women when given identical CVs – one with a man’s name and one with a woman’s name – favoured the one with the man’s name, and at a higher salary.

Men get sponsorship to move up: women get mentors to help them change themselves. Women are seen as more suited to teaching and administration. These activities are essential – but are undervalued in promotional competitions.

In Trinity College Dublin, the percentage of women at professoriate level has changed faster than in any other Irish university since 2013. Change is neither inevitable nor irreversible. In the University of Limerick, 34 per cent of those at professorial level were women in 2012. It has declined since then.

The initiatives taken since 2014 have improved women’s chances, but men’s chances have remained more than twice as high. Maybe we should be asking about men’s privileging rather than women’s under-representation?

Will the four women presidents tackle male privileging? Will they be supported by their male presidential colleagues in doing this? By the Higher Educational Authority? By the new Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science?

If not, apart from at a symbolic level, will their appointments make a difference? Maybe these are the right questions . . .

Pat O’Connor is professor emeritus at the University of Limerick and visiting professor at the Geary Institute, Dublin