Universities have been warned that funding will be withheld if they do not promote more women to senior posts.
Currently, although more than half of all lecturers in universities are women, only 29% of associate professors and 21% of professors are women and no woman has ever been appointed university president.
But Mary Mitchell O’Connor, minister of state with special responsibility for higher education, said universities that do not make progress towards achieving gender equality will lose access to research funding. State funding will be linked to institutions’ performance and will be withheld if they fail to meet agreed targets, The Irish Times reported.
“We need to send a message loud and clear to the institutions. There is nowhere to hide now. We want to see results. And there will be penalties,” she said.
Mitchell O’Connor made her remarks in advance of announcing last Monday the setting up of a high-level Gender Equality Taskforce, which will oversee a national systems review of recruitment and promotion policies and practices in higher education institutions, to identify good practice and highlight areas that need improvement.
According to a statement by the Department of Education and Skills, the review will feed into a three-year action plan to be prepared in consultation with stakeholders.
Funding of €500,000 (US$580,000) was provided in the Budget 2018 to support the work of the taskforce and greater gender equality in the sector. A regular reporting mechanism will be put in place. Institutions will be expected to take steps to improve their systems in a specified timescale where the need for improvement is identified.
The taskforce will build on work done for the Higher Education Authority’s HEA National Review of Gender Equality in Irish Higher Education Institutions, published last year. That report set out an analysis of the position in relation to gender equality in Irish higher education institutions and made recommendations to improve the position.
These included mandatory quotas for academic promotion and penalties for institutions that do not introduce such measures. In the summer the ministry announced that its performance review would look at introducing targets relating to gender equality that would “directly influence performance funding for institutions”.
The taskforce will identify good practices in the higher education sector partly by examining the work of institutions that have been given Athena SWAN awards – for gender equality advancement – and lessons learned from those that have not been successful with Athena SWAN applications.
Commenting on the review of recruitment and promotion systems, the minister said: “I was very concerned that nearly three-quarters of respondents to an HEA survey on gender equality indicated that there were issues in relation to transparency in recruitment, promotion and progress in higher education institutions. I want these issues thoroughly examined and changes put in place where needed.”
She said: “I know there are good practices in our higher education system, but we need to ensure that all institutions learn from these. Where improvements are required, they need to be addressed without delay. Having a national action plan with progress monitored on a regular basis will help to drive the change that we need to see. It will give us a clear line of sight on all relevant activities across the sector.”
The chairperson of the taskforce is Marie O’Connor, a financial services partner at PwC in Ireland for 30 years, who was nominated in 2017 as one of the Financial Times FT Heroes for Championing Women in Business, and was listed by Irish America Magazine as one of its Wall Street 50 for 2017 and its Inaugural Top 50 Power Women in 2016.
She said: “Gender equality starts at home – none of us today have lesser ambitions for our daughters than our sons. It is important as all students enter education that there are female role models and mentors and this is even more vital in the higher education institutions, which are so influential in the development of skills for future careers of young people.”
“Diversity fosters innovation, brings new ideas, new ways of working and makes for better communities and businesses, but women are significantly underrepresented in top positions in the higher education sectors in Ireland and indeed across Europe,” she added.
She said the HEA National Review of Gender Equality in Irish Higher Education Institutions indicated that talent alone is not always enough to guarantee success for women and that a “culture change” is necessary to give “equal opportunity and encouragement as their male counterparts to progress in their career”.
Linking gender inequality to sexism, Mitchell O’Connor told The Irish Times that the two are very real issues in public life and higher education institutions. “I want to be able to stand in front of young women starting college and say that there is no gender inequality in the institution you are going to join for the next three or four years.”
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