Irish university leadership’s gender rebalance may not persist

Senior management may be responding to national requirements, but fundamental, sustainable change needs more work, says Pat O’Connor

May 23, 2023
Team of lady acrobats practise on a lawn to illustrate Irish universities’ gender rebalance may not persist
Source: Getty

After 429 years, the exclusive appointment of men to lead Irish public universities has emphatically ended – at least for now.

Kerstin Mey’s appointment as the University of Limerick’s (interim) president in 2020 has been followed by several more female appointments, such that seven of 12 presidents of Ireland’s public universities are now women – a considerably higher proportion than in the EU or the UK.

The universities they lead include Trinity College Dublin, the oldest and most prestigious university in Ireland; University College Dublin, the largest; two of the younger universities (Limerick and Maynooth University) and three of the five new “technological universities” formed since 2019 by combining existing institutes of technology.

The fact that the change occurred over less than three years undermines the view that the previous four centuries reflected women’s lack of confidence, political “nous”, ambition, leadership skills, caring priorities or biology. Moreover, in Ireland, university presidents are appointed for 10 years, so the current incumbents have an opportunity to embed gender equality into their vision and institutional strategic plans.

However, closer examination reveals that ongoing gender equality may still not be guaranteed. Six of the seven women appointed have STEM backgrounds – and that is probably not a coincidence. Three of the five men who are currently presidents of Irish universities also come from STEM, likely reflecting a particular view on university boards – projected by the government – of the purpose of publicly funded higher education and the kinds of knowledge seen as most valuable.

This pattern has particular implications for women since there are far fewer of them in senior academic positions in STEM than in other disciplines. Nor are their numbers likely to increase particularly quickly. Compared with other disciplines that study the nature, extent and impact of power structures, STEM areas have historically struggled to recognise and respond to social, cultural and organisational sources of discrimination and privilege. There is evidence that men, who still dominate in Irish STEM departments, are less likely than women to see gender inequality as important or even real. And STEM’s higher research funding and lower teaching loads mean that women in those disciplines have more to gain by identifying with their male scientific counterparts than with their female non-scientific counterparts.

It is also noteworthy that four of the seven women leading Irish universities had no formative higher educational experiences in Ireland. It can be suggested that this reflects the fact that Irish university leaders are now “world class”. But if we accept that, what sense are we to make of the fact that none of Ireland’s male university leaders are in a similar situation? Perhaps it is easier to value women who have already been recognised internationally, whereas home-grown female talent may remain largely invisible. Indeed, Irish women were appointed leaders of prestigious universities internationally before they were appointed by any Irish universities.

It is, of course, possible that the recent female appointments reflect a strategic concession to multi-level state efforts to tackle gender inequality in higher education following recognition of systematic discrimination by the Higher Education Authority in 2015 – and subsequently by two higher education ministers. That recognition occurred in the context of EU funding of gender equality projects in Trinity College Dublin, the University of Limerick and University College Cork and was crystallised by the success of Micheline Sheehy Skeffington’s tribunal case against the University of Galway in 2014, whose promotion process was described by the tribunal as “ramshackle”.

The recognition that the problem was not limited to Galway led to a series of expert reports, in 2016, 2018 and 2022, and a range of national attempts to tackle gender inequality. Measures include the linking of state funding to the gender profile of senior positions; the Senior Academic Leadership initiative, involving the creation of 45 senior academic positions in areas where senior women were under-represented; the linking of the Athena SWAN gender equality mark to research funding; and attempts to end sexual violence and harassment through strategic investment in new posts and the development of targeted action plans.

As a result, most university governance bodies (boards, executive management committees and academic councils) now have a minimum of 40 per cent men and women. In addition, every board chair is currently female. And there is a slow but steady increase in the proportion of full professors who are women, reaching 30 per cent in 2021. The proportion of the female academic staff cohort who are at professorial level is higher at universities that have appointed a female president, suggesting that an underlying change in gender stereotypes may have occurred at these institutions.

But the complexity of culture change is not to be underestimated. While senior management may be responding to national requirements around gender equality, more remains to be done to achieve fundamental and sustainable change. At the very least, it can’t be assumed that because women have reached the highest pinnacle in the university structure, gender inequality no longer exists.

Even yet, academic men in Irish universities have a twice better chance than their female counterparts of becoming a full professor. This is just one of the ongoing challenges that remain to be addressed by male and female university presidents alike.  

Pat O’Connor is professor emeritus of sociology and social policy at the University of Limerick and a visiting professor at the Geary Institute, University College Dublin.

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Reader's comments (1)

It always baffles me why gender equality is predominantly discussed in the context of senior leadership roles as if they are the only ones that matter. Drop the labels and address all inequality at all levels.