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Affirmative Action Set for Irish Female Academics

It was announced in early November that the Government is set to tackle the under-representation of female professors in Irish third-level institutions. Minister for Higher Education, Mary Mitchell O’Connell announced the proposals at the launch of the Gender Equality Action Plan for Higher Education Institutions 2018-2020. The plans will see the formation of female-only candidate lists for professorships over the next three years. 15 women will be elevated to the status of professor for each of these three years, meaning that a total of 45 female academics will be promoted.

The initiative comes in light of findings from the Action Plan, which stated that on current trends it could take a further 20 years to have 40% of female representation in professorships. The positive discrimination outlined will see this percentage achieved by 2024. Speaking at the launch the Minister said, “excellent women in our Higher Education sector are not filling sufficient senior academic roles, not because they are not talented, able and expert or committed enough. Rather the Taskforce has found that women face a number of serious barriers to progression that are not experienced to the same degree by their male colleagues”.

The areas which will look to be addressed in particular are that of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths, otherwise referred to commonly as the STEM field. The representation of females at professorship level is at its lowest in these areas and the initiative will look to target STEM in particular. Overall in Ireland just 24% of all professors are women, despite the fact that they make up 50% of the working staff, i.e. lecturers. The number of female professors ranges drastically from one institution to the other. In one university, 1 in every 9 female lecturers are professors, while in NUIG this figure is 1 in 31.

A lecturer from the Department of Government in UCC, Dr Fiona Buckley, has welcomed the decision by saying, “I think the proposals are reasonable and necessary to address the structural gender inequality in Higher Education Institutes in Ireland. While we have equal proportions of women and men at lecturer level in Ireland, women consist of less than 25% of professors.” A key message in explaining the Government’s agenda, according to the Minister, was that talent is no longer enough for women who want to progress to the upper echelons of third-level education. This was reaffirmed by Dr Buckley who said, “this difference is not down to lack of ability or talent on behalf of women. Unfortunately, as demonstrated in a successful discrimination case taken by Micheline Sheehy-Skeffington against NUI Galway, it can come down to hidden gender biases against women within the university sector. The judgement in that case clearly highlighted this.”

Critics of the initiative include Professor of Psychiatry at UCD, Patricia Casey. Speaking in her opinion piece for the Irish Independent, Casey argues that the evidence suggesting that there is an unconscious bias against women is “flimsy at best”. The professor also went on to suggest that forcing women into STEM will do nothing to change the social difference between men and women. Casey said, “the ideological rush to egalitarianism in the Mitchell O’Connor report is based on the belief that there are no sex differences between men and women except those imposed by society.” This statement came from Casey in the light of an academic report suggesting that women in general have traits which cause them to have greater empathetic skills, while men are more fact and rule based.

Dr Buckley offers an alternative opinion by arguing that “targeted recruitment of ‘women only professorships’ is in place in Australia and the Netherlands, and this model has proven to be a success in increasing the number of women at professorial level.  People may not like gender targets or quotas, but the evidence shows that they work to redress gender imbalance.” This Island is well used to the controversy that quotas bring, having adopted them for the last General Election. In that case, female representation in the Irish legislature rose from about 15% to 23%, following a party candidate selection quota, which meant that a minimum of 30% of women would feature on party lists for the election and if not, the offending party would lose 50% of its state funding.

The real results from the initiative will probably be only understood post-2024. When the 40% target is met with positive discrimination the most important question lies at whether this number will then fall or remain constant for the foreseeable future.