Sunday 25 August 2019

Mary Mitchell O'Connor: 'Backlash about 'female-only' posts is rubbish - we need to right the balance'


Equality: The sculpture ‘Fearless Girl’ on stage at the launch of the gender action plan last year. Picture: Damien Eagers
Equality: The sculpture ‘Fearless Girl’ on stage at the launch of the gender action plan last year. Picture: Damien Eagers

Mary Mitchell O'Connor

Summer solstice 2019: the day higher education in Ireland changed forever. I officially opened the call to higher education institutions to apply for new professorial and senior lecturer posts - gender-specific posts.

The third-level sector in Ireland is underpinned by gender inequality, gender discrimination and instructional bias.

I am conscious that this is not an isolated incident for women in Ireland, but it is a place where I, as Minister for Higher Education, can make far-reaching improvements.

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I became the first Minister for Higher Education in the history of the State in July 2017. During my inaugural tour to the universities, I met a senior academic leader, who directed all his conversation to my male official. A common occurrence, say all the women in boardrooms the length and breadth of the country.

On the drive home, I pondered: how do women climb the career ladder in such an environment?

I already knew that, since the establishment of the first Irish university 426 years ago, there had never been a female president.

On that very day, I made a promise to myself - and to the female academics all over the country - to do everything possible to accelerate the progression of women within our hallowed halls of learning. While I was in charge of higher education, things were going to change.

Ireland is not unique. Gender inequality in higher education is an internationally observed issue. As far back as 2001, the European Commission concluded that "the under-representation of women threatens the goals of science in achieving excellence, as well as being wasteful and unjust", but little progress has been made since.

Women continue to be less represented as they move up the academic ladder, with only 24pc of grade A academic positions held by women in the 28 EU countries, compared with 46pc of grade C positions, and women make up only 27pc of research organisation board members. In essence, 76pc of all professors in academia are male.

I posed the question to the Higher Education Authority: how long before things improve? The answer was frightening.

It could be 20 years to achieve 40pc gender balance at the professor level in universities, I was told, and up to seven years to achieve gender balance at the highest career point in the institute of technology sector. Seeing that in black and white brought my challenge into sharp focus.

I never underestimated the task at hand. I was certainly energised by meeting great women, doing inspirational jobs within our eight universities and 14 institutes of technology.

I wanted to be their champion. I wanted to be an advocate for their careers. I also wanted all our students, both male and female, to have a more balanced teaching cohort, which would enhance their overall student experience.

In 2017, some weeks after my encounter in the university, I established the Gender Equality Taskforce.

I wanted to methodically identify significant measures that could accelerate progress in achieving gender equality in the Irish higher education sector.

There were the organisational and culture change initiatives needed, but I felt strongly that one targeted positive action initiative was required in order to effect change within a reasonable timeframe. An accelerator.

The Senior Academic Leadership Initiative was conceived. International evidence is that the establishment of new and additional gender-targeted posts would be a proportionate and effective means to achieve rapid and sustainable change.

This initiative has the potential to be transformative for higher education in terms of securing the gender-equality goals I set for the sector when I took the reins. No one wants to wait 20 years.

Therefore, 45 new and additional senior level posts will be funded in areas where there is a significant under-representation of women, as part of the new Senior Academic Leadership Initiative.

There has been some backlash to the concept of 'female-only posts' and concerns that lesser-qualified women will secure posts to the detriment of better-qualified men.

Rubbish - these posts are about righting the explicit gender inequality that exists.

We forensically examined what Delft Technology University in the Netherlands did, by hiring only female researchers for a time.

Apart from increasing their top-level academics from 8pc to 15pc in a relatively short period, they also noticed that the overall quality of applicants was stronger.

Their gender recruitment policy had a self-germinating effect, as aside from those who were selected for positions, it revealed other talented women for future opportunities.

I read with great interest last week about the Eindhoven University's initiative, whereby they are opening up vacancies for permanent academic staff exclusively for women.

For the next year and a half, all their 150 vacancies will be filled by women only. This measure is intended to achieve gender balance within those 18 months.

So, although our initiative may seem radical to some - I don't think so.

And what about that female university president? Possibly within my lifetime. The governing authority is now required to ensure that measures to promote gender equality within the search and selection process must now be undertaken, as well as documenting the gender balance in the applicant pool.

This has represented the ultimate glass ceiling in higher education... could this all be about to change?

I hope so.

Irish Independent

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