Women in university leadership – A lot done, but more to do

When an initiative to create female-only professorships in Irish universities was announced in 2018, it met with a range of reactions from praise to ridicule. A few government officials warned that it might be illegal, while there was more than a whiff of misogyny in some public commentary at the time.

But SALI – which stands for the Senior Academic Leadership Initiative – has largely won over the sceptics and is very slowly leading to more female professorships. More significantly, perhaps, SALI has also helped shape a culture where the idea of female university presidents would become commonplace. They are now in the majority in Ireland.

The SALI scheme is administered nationally by the Higher Education Authority, the body charged with the effective governance and regulation of higher education. It is directed at areas of academic under-representation and is designed to accelerate gender balance at senior levels across the sector. To date, 30 posts have been created out of a promised 45.

International Women’s Day

Mary Mitchell O’Connor, the former minister for higher education, well remembers the opposition she faced when she first proposed the idea, but she pressed ahead and, as she told University World News, “the sky didn’t fall in”.

Indeed, the scheme and the former minister were praised at a unique event last Monday at Maynooth University held to mark International Women’s Day 2023. Five female presidents spoke, while a sixth recorded an interview for the session as she was unable to attend. A seventh will take up her new post in May.

Opening the event, Maynooth University President Professor Eeva Leinonen said: “I sit here with my fellow presidents and I do think very much about the pipeline behind us, and you know, the responsibility that we all feel for developing that pipeline and the SALI initiative is something that really enables us to do that.”

She said there were still problems when it came to recruitment that mirror those in wider society. “But I think we are very determined as a sector to make the most out of this incredible initiative. I would say, give it a few more years and we will be able to look at the impact.”

She told University World News that while she had understood the significance of bringing the presidents together, she had not truly understood the emotional impact of having so many female leaders. It resonated with many people, academic and beyond.

Nor had she quite understood the backlash in Ireland to the idea of women-only professorships. Coming from Finland she had taken it at face value – an initiative to appoint women to areas where there was under-representation.

Although it was too early to fully judge the impact of SALI, she would recommend it to other countries as there were areas where there was still under-representation of women. A sectoral approach to issues worked well in small countries like Ireland, she believed.

A suite of changes

SALI is one of a suite of initiatives and changes in Irish universities over the past decade and in the wider society that made the appointment of female university presidents easier to imagine.

The breakthrough came in July 2020 when Professor Kerstin Mey was appointed to head the University of Limerick. She was followed in quick succession by Leinonen at Maynooth University; Professor Veronica Campbell at South East Technological University; Professor Maggie Cusack at Munster Technological University; Professor Linda Doyle at Trinity College Dublin; Professor Orla Flynn at Atlantic Technological University; and Professor Orla Feely will take over the top job at University College Dublin on 1 May.

Four of the seven were born outside the country: Leinonen (Finland), Mey is German and Cusack is from Scotland, as is Campbell, although she has lived in Ireland for nearly 30 years.

Technically there are now eight female presidents of the country’s 13 universities following the election of Professor Laura Viani at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) which has university status. However, the RCSI presidency does not have the same executive role as in the other universities – that’s exercised by a vice-chancellor, a male in this case.

The culture of the university is clearly important and the appointment of Mey at Limerick is illuminating in that regard. By the time she was chosen, the university had already developed a very good reputation for gender balance in senior positions. Five of the 11 members of the executive committee were women as were two of its three vice-presidents and three of its five deans. Its chancellor was Mary Harney, a former Tanaiste (deputy prime minister) in the Irish government.

Mey said the growing participation of women in higher education offers significant opportunities to build a critical mass of talent for developing future generations of female leaders from the ground up and to equip them to transform higher education, research and management.

‘It cannot be left to chance’

Mey argued that this cannot be left to chance but requires the design and implementation of sectoral development initiatives such as Aurora, AdvanceHE’s leadership development programme for women in higher education.

Her own institution makes use of the (expanded) Athena Swan Charter as a framework to support and transform gender equality across the organisation through gap analysis, action plans and aligned policy and practice development. Practical measures at the University of Limerick include tailored staff development initiatives, for instance on unconscious bias and the skills to influence, persuade and empower, mentor and coach.

“Moreover, the introduction of a research grant for returning carers, the establishment of dedicated staff support networks, mentoring and coaching of women in academic and professional support roles have demonstrated their potential to enhance career opportunities, including progression and promotion successes,” according to Mey.

In a blog post for the European University Association, she wrote that the redrafting of terms of reference for committees and working groups also ensures equality of representation.

The association, which represents more than 800 universities in 48 countries, reported last year that the European average for female presidents was just under 20%. A declining number of European countries still had none.

It is not that much different in the United States, home to some of the best and the worst universities in the world. Despite earning the majority of degrees over the last 15 years, women are president at only 22% of the elite institutions. Of those, only 5% are women of colour, according to The Women’s Power Gap at Elite Universities: Scaling the ivory tower, a study by the Women’s Power Gap Initiative and the American Association of University Women.

A catalyst for change

The promotion of so many females to the top jobs in Irish universities has prompted discussion on why it took so long, given that there were always excellent potential presidents. A catalyst was certainly a review by the Higher Education Authority in 2016 on gender inequality in Irish higher education. It reported that four of every five professors were men, who also held 72% of the highest paid non-academic posts.

“The report brought a new and stark awareness to the issue of female under-representation in senior roles in higher education,” recalled Tom Boland, former chief executive of the authority. The report, subsequent action plans and policies were likely to have contributed to a sense of moral obligation, leading to a new openness to appoint women to senior roles, he suggested.

“There is also the fact that Irish society, more generally, has changed in recent years as a more liberal ethos took hold, demonstrated by such issues as widespread support for same sex marriage and abortion rights. Once the logjam of discrimination broke, it released an avalanche of talent,” he told University World News.

One other factor that was not mentioned at the celebratory event on Monday was the slew of legal cases taken over the years by females who had been discriminated against in appointments. Some were very high profile.

The University of Galway, for instance, was ordered by an Equality Tribunal to pay Dr Micheline Sheehy Skeffington €70,000 (US$74,000) after it was found to have discriminated against her. The university subsequently introduced sweeping changes such as gender quotas for promotion schemes, along with inclusivity and unconscious bias training programmes for managers and staff.

‘A lot more to do’

What was mentioned, however, at the presidential get-together in Maynooth was the need to ensure the pipeline of female talent. So too was the precarious nature of the employment of many staff, female staff in particular.

The Irish Federation of University Teachers has welcomed the appointment of so many female presidents. Its general secretary, Frank Jones, said, however, that women continued to be under-represented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and in STEM leadership positions. Only 27% of university professors in STEM fields were female in 2020, representing only a marginal improvement on the 2017-19 figure of 25%.

The union leader also told University World News that too many females were still in very precarious employment and were not getting enough hours of teaching time.

Overall, it’s clear that progress has been made in some areas but that Irish universities, like those in other countries, have a distance to go before they reach full equality. Summarising the current state of play, one insider borrowed an election slogan used by a political party in Ireland a few years back when it declared “a lot done, a lot more to do”.