Sunday 20 October 2019

Mary Mitchell O'Connor: 'Why I'm going to give women in academia a level playing field'

For too long, the top higher education jobs have gone to men. Now that's going to change, writes Mary Mitchell O'Connor

Gender bias protest at Galway
Gender bias protest at Galway

Mary Mitchell O'Connor

Traditionally, English syntax has favoured masculinity where power and professional progress are concerned. "May the best man win" or "the best man for the job" are throwaway terms that have nestled far too comfortably into everyday language.

These precepts don't sit well with me because as an educator and politician, I am fully aware that a two-tier system of power dominates certain sectors of society, often for no good reason other than it is simply the norm. By this I mean that many women, who are as capable and efficient as their male peers, still work in an environment where their gender holds them back. Let's call it what it is: gender inequality.

Take the third-level sector, for example, and I am conscious that this is not an isolated illustration for women in Ireland, but it is a place where I, as Minister for Higher Education, can make far-reaching improvements.

Statistics tell us that while women make up half of the staff at third-level, only a quarter of university professors are female. Scratch the surface even more and we find that there has never been a female president in a state-funded university in 426 years. Think on this for a moment - since the establishment of Ireland's first university in 1592, no woman has ever been provost or president. It is an unspoken culture that smacks of "jobs for the boys".

Given the exemplary calibre of female professors, both past and present, educating a nation of future leaders in our hallowed lecture halls, there is no reason why women continue to play second fiddle when it comes to seniority. On paper, gender equality has been enshrined in our legislation for the third-level sector for many years, so higher education institutions must, by law, promote gender balance.

There have been some improvements - all seven universities have now achieved Athena SWAN Institutional Bronze status, a charter adopted in Ireland in 2015 which promotes equality and commits to advancing the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, and maths (Stem) employment in higher education and research. Nevertheless, progress is far too slow. Just 24pc of professors were women in 2017, a paltry increase on 21pc in 2016. Just two out of 14 presidents in the institutes of technologies are women.

But changes are afoot. Tomorrow, I will publish a much-needed action plan for universities and institutes of technologies on gender equality. Accelerating Gender Equality in Irish Higher Education Institutions is the culmination of a year's work involving the Department of Education's gender equality task force, and I do believe it sets out some radical changes to ensure a more equal playing field.

How will I do this? As Minister for Higher Education, in conjunction with the Department of Education, I am creating female-only professorial posts within our universities and institutes of technologies.

This is just one of a myriad of initiatives that will address and improve on the paltry proportion of women in senior third-level positions. Higher education institutions need to grasp the opportunity for change and know that their efforts are neither isolated nor will go unsupported.

On initial reading of this statement, some quarters may deem the effort to balance gender inequality with jobs for the girls as an oxymoron - does this discriminate against men?

But hear me out. This is not about keeping men out of high-powered positions in the third-level sector. We don't need to. We have excellent men charged with important senior positions across education.

Instead, this is about affording women of equal, yet unrecognised, proficiency an opportunity that is currently not available to them because of a traditional status quo that is badly in need of reform.

I am prepared for some minor backlash to these female-only professorship appointments, but I will not apologise or shirk from my responsibility to make the third-level sector an equal one.

I'll conclude with a powerful quote: "Here's to strong women. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them."

Here's to a level playing field for women in academia. They are strong, we do know them. What an inspiration it will be for young girls to know they can secure that top job in the third-level sector by being the right person and not the wrong gender.

Mary Mitchell O'Connor is Minister for Higher Education at the Department of Education and Fine Gael TD for Dun Laoghaire

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