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

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Front Page -

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 Gen- der 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

‘This is about giv­ing women of equal pro­fi­ciency an op­por­tu­nity’

IN­EQUAL­ITY: Only a quar­ter of univer­sity pro­fes­sors in Ire­land are fe­male

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