Women to become the majority among university presidents

Three years ago all the university presidents in Ireland were men. But from the beginning of May male presidents will be in a minority as seven of the country’s 13 universities will be headed by women.

The latest to join the ranks will be Orla Feely, professor of electronic engineering at University College Dublin (UCD), whose governing body announced her appointment to the top job last Monday. The university has over 33,000 students drawn from 136 countries.

The turnaround comes four years after the government decided to take action on gender equality in higher education senior posts, controversially announcing 45 female-only professorships.

Professor Feely, who obtained her doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley, has been vice president for research, innovation and impact at UCD for nearly a decade. Her research is in the area of non-linear circuits and systems. She has championed the advancement of women in the university, where she led the development and delivery of two gender equality action plans.

After her appointment she talked about how her life had been transformed since she started her own studies at UCD at the age of 16. “I witness the university’s continuing transformative impact every day… I want to lead a new UCD that makes a clear positive difference to the lives of our students through the educational experience we deliver,” said Feely, who takes up her new post on 1 May.

Three of the country’s five new technological universities are headed by women, as are Trinity College Dublin, Maynooth University and the University of Limerick. Two years ago the election of Professor Linda Doyle as provost and president of Trinity College Dublin (founded in 1592) was noteworthy for the fact that the three candidates for the post were female.

Remarkable turnaround in gender equality

Overall, it’s a remarkable turnaround in the equality stakes in a short space of time. In November 2018, the government announced that it would create up to 45 female-only professorships because of the wide disparity in gender equality.

The plan was significant internationally as it was thought to be the first time a government had established a national scheme of this kind across the entire sector, reflecting both the ambitions of the higher education minister and also the ability of the Irish government to set down norms and procedures for the whole sector.

A report had found that in 2015 four of every five professorial positions in Irish universities were held by men. While women represented 62% of professional, management and specialist staff, three quarters of the highest paid posts were held by men. An Action Plan followed in 2018 and a Centre for Excellence in Gender Equality was established by the Higher Education Authority, a statutory body.

A second national review released two months ago reported significant progress on several levels. It said, however, that experience had not been uniform in relation to all indicators or across the higher education landscape.

It recommended that each higher education institution draw up a gender equality action plan that is published on its website. It also recommended that a strategy be developed at national level to address precarity of employment.

The review was carried out by a six-person expert group, chaired by Niamh O’Donoghue, former secretary general of the Department of Social Protection, and consisted of national and international members with expertise and experience in gender equality.

“The group recognises that there is a real opportunity in Ireland for higher education institutions to make gender equality a reality, thereby creating a ripple effect through all society. The progress already made gives us real confidence that there is an appetite and a willingness to embrace this agenda.

“The importance of higher education institutions as exemplars of the type of society we seek to build cannot be understated,” said O’Donoghue.