Katherine Donnelly: 'Women-only professor roles kick-starting 'a change in place where change is most needed''
Headline-grabbing announcements such as Hillary Clinton being made Chancellor of Queen's University Belfast or former President Mary McAleese's recent appointment as Chancellor of Trinity College Dublin may create the impression women are running the show in higher education. Far from it.
Important as these positions are, they do not reflect the attention paid to ensuring gender balance at senior executive level in universities and institutes of technology.
Worse than that, some years ago, an equality case taken by Dr Micheline Sheehy Skeffington against NUI Galway highlighted how, in some instances, women academics were actively discriminated against.
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In the 428 years since Ireland's first university opened, there has never been a female president. Down the line, while women may have a reasonably equal share of more junior academic positions, relatively few progress to the level of professor or equivalent.
Ireland is not alone in this imbalance, but something radical was needed to change the numbers and culture, and the SALI initiative was born. Male dissenters claimed it was reverse discrimination and there were concerns about a legal challenge. According to Minister Mary Mitchell O'Connor, it has been cleared by the Attorney General as being compliant with national and EU employment law.
Even among female academics, there have been mutterings of tokenism.
Professor Lesley Yellowlees of Edinburgh University, who headed the 10-member international assessment panel, which had expertise in gender equality as well as broad disciplinary and strategic level expertise, sees it as worthwhile initiative.
"I believe if you want to do it in timely fashion then you have some sort of quota. I think what you are trying to do is partly an experiment and many of us are watching with interest," she said.
"There are examples of higher education institutions in other countries positively discriminating in favour of women for senior roles, but it is the Government's involvement that has marked SALI out. For me it was nice to see Government putting its money where its mouth is - so many just pay lip service."
Another member of the assessment panel, Professor Peter Main of King's College London, agreed SALI was important in kick-starting the system and "instigate change in the place where change is most needed".
This first phase was intended to see the creation of 15 positions but the decision was taken to front-load with 20.
Another 25 women-only roles are promised over the next few years and the hope is that it will bring about a culture change and trigger a process of self-germination that will create a level playing field, which, when reviewed in a decade, will no longer need a Government sowing seeds.