Why should the taxpayer fund misogyny in our universities?

Opinion: Women make up half of university lecturers and only a quarter of professors

Women remain under represented in the senior ranks of universities. Photograph: Getty Images

Women remain under represented in the senior ranks of universities. Photograph: Getty Images


Women in Irish universities make up 51 per cent of those at lecturer level (the entry level for academic posts) but only 24 per cent of those at full professorial level (the highest academic level).

There has been an average of 1 per cent increase per annum in women at full professorial level since 2013.

In 2017 the highest proportion of women at full professorial level were in University of Limerick, Dublin City University and Maynooth, that is 30 to 31 per cent. But this does not tell the whole story.

When we look at the figures, it is very striking that the male ratio of full professors to those in the grades below is very similar across all seven universities: roughly 1:5 on average.

The female ratio of full professors to those below that is on average much worse (1:15) – and has only marginally improved from 2013-15. It also varies far more than the men’s (from 1:9 in Maynooth to 1:31 in NUI Galway in 2015-17).

Thus, even those universities that are “good” for women in these terms are much worse than for men. This raises questions about why women’s chances are so low relative to men’s and why they vary more.

Across all seven universities, it is possible to assess what one might call the average male “chance” of a professorship (looking at the ratio of men at full professoriate level to those below that and a similar ratio for women and the relationship between them).

This has varied relatively little since 2013. Men’s “chance” of accessing a professorship in these terms remains roughly three times greater than women’s.


This reflects the fact that although there was a substantial reduction in men’s relative chance of accessing a professorial position in Trinity College Dublin, and to a lesser extent in DCU since 2013, it remained much the same in most other universities (UCC, UCD, Maynooth University) with an increase in men’s chances in NUIG (a consistent laggard) and in the University of Limerick (formerly an early achiever: where 34 per cent of those at full professorial level were women in 2012).

So, Trinity College Dublin, the oldest and most prestigious of the Irish universities, with the second lowest proportion of women at full professorial level in 2013-15, has shown the greatest ability to change.

Dublin City University, a new university, has shown the second greatest ability to change. The fact that the top two are Trinity College Dublin and Dublin City University challenges assumptions that the age of the university is critical in affecting their ability to increase the proportion of women at full professorial level since 2013. It raises questions about why this has not happened in other universities.

The new universities (UL, DCU and Maynooth University) have currently a higher proportion of women at (full) professorial level. But in two of them (UL and Maynooth) men’s chance of a professorship relative to women was lower than the average in 2013, giving them an initial boost. However, this was not true of Dublin City University, also a new university.

No Irish female university president

In Ireland there has never been a female president of a public university – in contrast to Sweden where roughly half of those at this level are women.

Whereas in 2015 only two of the seven universities had 40 per cent plus women on executive management, this had doubled to four of the seven by 2017.

However female representation on executive management changes very fast: in 2016 none of the universities had 40 per cent plus women on executive management, and a year later, four of them had.

This may not be unrelated to the proposed linking of state funding to female representation in senior positions. Female representation on governing authority remained at 40 per cent plus in five of the seven universities in 2017.

Only two of the seven universities (as compared with one in 2015) achieved 40 per cent plus on academic council – a representative structure which varies in size from 54 to 413 people.

Given its size it is difficult to see it as an effective decision-making structure. Given its representative character it can arguably be seen a reflection of the male-dominated culture of most Irish universities.

Trinity College Dublin has the highest and most consistent representation of women in its executive management and governance structures. In Trinity College Dublin, executive management, governing authority and academic council all had 40 per cent plus women in 2017 – a pattern that it has generally maintained since 2013. It is followed by DCU. UCD and NUI Galway are at the other extreme – with neither having 40 per cent of women on these structures .

The solution

Overall, then, the pace of change as regards increases in the proportion of women in the top academic positions (ie full professorial) has been very slow. Trinity College Dublin has made the greatest strides since 2013, followed by DCU.

However, across all universities men have a roughly one-in-five “chance” of accessing a professorship, and this varies very little between the universities, while women have a one-in-15 “chance” and this varies a great deal.

If these patterns reflected women’s child bearing and child rearing responsibilities this variation would make no sense.

It looks as if the organisational culture in general, and leadership in particular, is key. Tackling it requires the implementation of the recommendations of the National Review of Gender Inequality (2016) by a leadership actively committed to advancing gender equality.

This recommends that 40 per cent of those at full professorial position will be women by 2024, with State funding being tied to that.

Why should the taxpayer fund the persistence of what can only be labelled misogyny in the universities?

  • Pat O’Connor is professor emeritus of sociology and social policy at the University of Limerick and visiting professor at the Geary Institute, UCD. She is a a speaker at the symposium on gender equality in higher education taking place in the Royal Irish Academy on 10th October 2018.