Ireland’s once all-male sector leadership nears gender equality

Minister behind gender equality plan reflects on influx of female university presidents ahead of Trinity College Dublin’s provost election

March 26, 2021
Male busts in Long Room of the Old Library, Trinity College, Dublin
Source: Alamy

The election of Trinity College Dublin’s first female provost will cap a remarkable 12 months for Ireland’s traditionally male-dominated higher education leadership, with almost half of the country’s universities soon to be led by women.

Until last summer none of Ireland’s universities had ever appointed a female president, but that 428-year tradition of male leadership was brought to an end last July by Kerstin Mey, when the German art theory professor was named as the University of Limerick’s interim president.

In December, Maggie Cusack was named as president of the newly formed Munster Technological University – a merger of Cork Institute of Technology and the Institute of Technology, Tralee – while Eeva Leinonen, vice-chancellor of Australia’s Murdoch University, was confirmed as Maynooth University’s president last month.

But the election of a female head at Ireland’s oldest and most prestigious university – due to be picked from an all-female shortlist of three senior scholars on 7 April – will be the most momentous female appointment so far.

“We’ve seen a very significant transformation with the appointment of three female leaders in the past year but we need to keep pushing for further improvements across the sector,” said Orla Feely, vice-president for research at University College Dublin, who has backed the recently announced Science Foundation Ireland strategy that would seek to ensure that 35 per cent of annual principal investigator grants go to women.

The latest appointment – from a shortlist of dean of research Linda Doyle, Linda Hogan, a theologian, and Jane Ohlmeyer, a historian and chair of the Irish Research Council – will mean four of Ireland’s 10 universities are led by women.

The arrival of a female provost at Trinity College Dublin – which was founded in 1592 but did not admit women until 1904 nor allow them to become fellows or have rooms on campus until the 1960s – would represent a milestone moment for the institution.

Many believe that much of the credit for Ireland’s series of female appointments should go to Mary Mitchell O’Connor, the former higher education minister who branded the lack of women university leaders as “inexcusable” in 2017 before overseeing an ambitious and sometimes controversial programme of gender equality initiatives, which included the creation of dozens of women-only professorial posts with the aim of having a professoriate that is at least 40 per cent female.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Ms Mitchell O’Connor said she was “delighted” to see the appointment of Ireland’s first female university presidents.

Radical action was needed given the “consistently slow rate of change” in recent years, which saw the rate of female professors increase by only 1 or 2 per cent a year between 2013 and 2017, she said.

“This snail’s pace was unacceptable to me, the department and many in the higher education sector, so it was therefore imperative that each higher education institution took ownership and showed leadership in examining and addressing their own context and culture in the area of inequality,” said Ms Mitchell O’Connor.

Institutions had “embraced the spirit of the gender equality action plan”, which requires them to report progress on goals, actions and targets and potentially lose up to 10 per cent of government funding if they fall short, she added.

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