Radical Irish gender plan ‘could be model for Europe’

Frustration with ‘snail’s pace’ progress across continent leads Irish government to back financial sanctions against universities that miss targets

November 22, 2018
Woman on stationary bike next to cycle race
Source: Reuters
Ireland’s progress on gender equality in academia is ‘just not good enough’ under the current system

The Republic of Ireland’s radical plan to dock universities up to a tenth of their core funding if they fail to hit ambitious gender targets could spur further direct government interventions across Europe to get more women into academic posts, according to advocates of the proposals.

The country’s Gender Action Plan 2018-2020 reveals mounting exasperation that many existing schemes by universities and governments have failed to close academia’s gender gap, and argues that it is time for more quotas, female-specific positions and financial incentives to hire women.

Mary Mitchell O’Connor, Ireland’s higher education minister, told Times Higher Education that progress on gender equality has moved at a “snail’s pace”. Change has been too slow not just in Ireland but across Europe, and the issue “has come up consistently” at Europe-wide conferences on the subject, she said.

Under the plans, universities could lose up to 10 per cent of their government funding if they fail to hit their targets, although Ms Mitchell O’Connor stressed: “I really don’t expect that to happen, but I do expect higher education institutions to step up to the plate.”

The overarching aim is to have a professoriate that is at least 40 per cent female. “The solution is to put in place really high-level specific professional posts for women only,” she said. As part of the plan, released on 12 November, Ireland will fund the creation of 15 women-specific professorships annually for the next three years, she said.

Currently, universities in Ireland – none of which have ever appointed a female president – follow a “flexible cascade” system, where they aim to recruit the same or a greater proportion of women to each academic level as the one below.

Gemma Irvine, head of policy and strategic planning at Ireland’s Higher Education Authority and one of the plan’s researchers, said that ministers had looked at progress under this system and concluded that it was “just not good enough”. It could take 20 years to achieve the 40 per cent target if nothing else is done, the plan says.

Dr Irvine characterised career development coaching for women as “fixing the women, not the system” and “not enough” in isolation.

The authors of the plan had surveyed successful European initiatives and come to the conclusion that linking gender balance to funding was one of the most effective, she explained, as “funding drives behaviour” and “focused minds” among university presidents.

The Irish move could prompt similar government-driven interventions across Europe, according to Dr Irvine. “I would hope other jurisdictions look at what we’re doing,” she added.

Since the turn of the century, more women have broken into higher levels of European academia, the plan shows. In 2001, just 8 per cent of professors in Ireland were female. In Switzerland (9 per cent), Germany (11 per cent) and France (15 per cent), the situation was little better.

By 2016, Ireland’s professoriate was 22 per cent female, around the same level as France (24 per cent) Germany (23 per cent) and Switzerland (21 per cent).

But many gender initiatives have missed their targets. In 2000, Switzerland set out to make a quarter of full and associate professors and 40 per cent of assistant professors female by 2012 – targets that have still not been reached. Most Dutch universities are on track to miss 2020 targets on female professors.

Karin Zimmermann, an expert on gender equality in universities based at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center, said that “extra money” was simply the best way to incentivise “underfinanced universities in global competition” to take on more female professors. “Numerous gender equality plans and/or target agreements have been unsuccessful for years,” she added.

Slow turnover of the professoriate has also hampered efforts to shift the balance. A spokeswoman for the Irish Universities Association (IUA) said that progress was “inherently slow” because of the “length of tenure of incumbents”, a drag on turnover made worse by rising retirement ages. Fewer than one in 10 of Ireland’s professor posts become available each year, said Dr Irvine.

Irish universities have accepted the plan’s proposals, the IUA spokeswoman said, and are now set to negotiate over the details of implementation.

Ireland was the first to take a “strategic national approach” to the problem, she said.

According to Deborah Werner and John Roman, who work on gender equality at Germany’s Centre for Higher Education thinktank, such an approach would be harder to take in a bigger country. “For countries like Ireland, implementing government-led policies to close the gender gap in higher education would most likely be easier than for federalised countries, like Germany,” they said.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Irish gender plan: a model for the rest of Europe?

Reader's comments (4)

Remind me never to work in an Irish university if such a disgusting plan comes into force, if I ever manage to make professor I want to do so on merit not due to my gender.
Much that US university administrations have done over the decades to social engineer the "correct" proportions of the sexes or races in their faculties has been highly unethical and even illegal. Here is a case history, my own documentation for the biology department at San Diego State University: Race, Sex, and Faculty Searches, Department of Biology, SDSU, 1988-2002 https://www.nas.org/articles/race_sex_and_faculty_searches_department_of_biology_sdsu_1988_2002?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter To quote briefly from one section: "Females constituted 18% of the Biology tenured and tenure-track faculty in March 2002 (Table 1) and 21% (= 9/42) at the time of this writing (October 2003). They have constituted an average of 22% of the applicants in the 26 recent faculty searches for which we know the sex ratio of the entire applicant pool. Both figures are almost half the percentage of females among Ph.D. awardees in biology over the last two decades. "This difference is no surprise or mystery to sociologists who analyze labor force statistics in relation to differences among men and women with respect to choices they make and preferences they have concerning many dimensions of their careers and family life. For a woman with a Ph.D. in biology and with small children, or plans to have children, there are, for example, many reasons why a job in the biotechnology industry might be more attractive than one as an assistant professor in a research university, or why a half-time job might be more attractive than a full-time one. "The actual availability of females in the labor force from which the Department of Biology recruits its faculty is thus more accurately represented by our own records on actual numbers of females in applicant pools than it is by data on numbers of Ph.D.s awarded."
In the appendix to the above mentioned report from SDSU, there is the following more recent information: "Finally it may be mentioned that this report’s finding of apparent preferential offering of positions to female applicants by SDSU’s Department of Biology during 1988-2002 is consistent with one of the methodologically most sound investigation to date of sex bias in faculty hiring (2). Its key finding: “Contrary to prevailing assumptions, men and women faculty members from all four fields [biology, engineering, economics, psychology] preferred female applicants 2:1 over identically qualified males with matching lifestyles (single, married, divorced), with the exception of male economists, who showed no gender preference.” (2) Williams, W.M. and S.J. Ceci. 2015. National hiring experiments reveal 2:1 faculty preference for women on STEM tenure track. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 112(17): 5360-5365.
The article cites no evidence of any unjust discrimination in Ireland against women in faculty hiring processes. In the US in almost all cases where claims of such discrimination have been put forward, solid statistical evidence of such discrimination has been found wanting. To engineer a particular sex ratio in a faculty by essentially "buying" women or "suborning" universities seems about as horrible thing one could do to the competent female faculty members who have won their positions in fair, unbiased competitions. So now when we visit Ireland and find a department with females making up 40% of faculties tho only 20% of position applicants, there'll be a new parlor game in town: guessing which of the ladies are the "quota fillers" hires and which are "aced the interview" hires. The principle of equal opportunity is rapidly being thrown out the window in the US too, of course.

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