Women-only professorial posts will work

Inequality will be perpetuated for another generation without radical intervention

Prof Yvonne Galligan, director of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at Dublin Institute of Technology.

Prof Yvonne Galligan, director of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at Dublin Institute of Technology.

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This week Minister of State for Higher Education, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, announced the Government’s intention to create up to 45 new posts to boost women’s representation in senior academic positions.

These are additional professorial appointments to existing staffing provision. They are expected to cost €6 million.

The purpose of this unique Senior Academic Talent Initiative is to tackle gender inequality at the top of Irish higher education institutions. The evidence on this point is clear: according to Higher Education Authority statistics, women in universities comprise 50 per cent of lecturers but only 24 per cent of professors.

In the Institutes of Technology, women make up 50 per cent of assistant lecturers, but only 31 per cent of senior lecturers, the top academic grade.

This is the context for a radical intervention. The finer details remain to be worked out. This will take place over coming weeks, in discussions with the Irish Universities Association (IUA) and the Technological Higher Education Association (THEA).

Inequality will be perpetuated for another generation

Positive intervention

The principle behind the measure is clear. It is a positive action intervention intended to accelerate gender equality at the top in Irish higher education.

The Minister and the Government are committed to bringing about a gender equal, or at least gender-balanced, profile in as short a time as possible.

Some might wonder why the haste. After all, the trajectory is in the right direction, from 18 per cent female professors in 2015 to 24 per cent in 2018. These figures suggest that it is just a matter of time before women level up with men in senior academic roles.

The issue then is what constitutes an acceptable period of time for that equality to come about. The Gender Task Force report suggests that at this rate of progress it will take two decades – until 2040 – for women to hold 40 per cent of top academic posts.

Inequality will be perpetuated for another generation.

Discrimination

Others may worry that this radical intervention creates discrimination against men. There is an important rider attaching to these posts that has not received sufficient attention.

It is that the posts are to be allocated to disciplines where women are in a significant minority after other measures have failed. In engineering, for example, women hold about 15 per cent of academic positions.

Physics has a similar gender profile. To change this long-established pattern requires a radical approach. The proposal on the table will not remove men from their existing posts, but will add senior women of world-class academic standing to disciplines in which they are under-represented.

Normal opportunities for academic progression will not be affected.

The Senior Academic Talent Initiative has the potential to have a major positive impact on the Irish higher education environment

Advancement opportunities

Related to this point, the Gender Equality Task Force report recommends the application of the “flexible cascade” model to career advancement opportunities. Separate from the Minister’s additional posts, this strategy introduces a check on any unconscious bias present in the promotions process.

In this model, the outcome is expected to reflect the gender pattern of the pool from which applications for promotion are drawn.

Put simply, if women constitute 50 per cent of lecturers, the outcome of promotions to the next stage is expected to be 50:50, provided equal numbers of women and men apply.

The flexible cascade model catalyses promotion applications from women. It counteracts their tendency to come forward for advancement less frequently than men. But even with the cascade model, and an increase of 1 or 2 per cent in women’s professorial success rates each year, it will still take two decades to achieve gender balance at the top.

Hence the plan for female-only professorial appointments to accelerate that outcome.

Minister of State for Higher Education, Mary Mitchell O’Connor. Photograph: Tom Honan
Minister of State for Higher Education, Mary Mitchell O’Connor. Photograph: Tom Honan

Tokenism

Finally, some will have concerns that these 45 positions have a whiff of tokenism, and that women appointed to them will not be there on their own merit. Much depends on the eligibility criteria and the process for choosing the successful bids. These matters have yet to be teased out.

It is likely, though, that scientific excellence will be a core candidate requirement.

Additional posts are not a new phenomenon in academic hiring. The prestigious Canada Research Chairs, for example, are competitive positions over and above the normal staffing provision. No one would challenge the holder of a Canada Chair on the merit of her or his scientific profile. The application process – for the universities to host a Canada Chair and for the individual applicants – is conducted to international standards of excellence.

Diversity is a core component on which institutional bids to host a Chair are evaluated. One would expect a similar rigour to apply in the case of these 45 female-only posts. It is likely to generate significant competition among higher education institutions for top-quality female academics in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) at home and abroad.

The Senior Academic Talent Initiative has the potential to have a major positive impact on the Irish higher education environment. In tandem, the recommendations of the Gender Equality Task Force report and the Senior Academic Talent Initiative will drive gender diversity and inclusion in higher education to the benefit of science and society.

Prof Yvonne Galligan was director of the Gender Initiative in Queen’s University Belfast until recently, and is now Director of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at Dublin Institute of Technology.

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