In the Gender Action Plan 2018-2020 report, Minister of State for Higher Education in Ireland, Mary Mitchell O’Connor states that the National Review of Gender Equality in Irish Higher Education Institutions, published in 2016 highlighted the severity of the issue of gender inequality in Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in senior positions. The report shows that the progress following the report has been exceptionally slow. This parallels the trends across European HEIs with regards to gender balance in senior positions. A gender balance is considered to have been achieved when the number of female employees equals to or exceeds 40%, according to the report’s specific reference to female professors.

Looking at the data trends in-between 2013 and 2017, shows that the rate of increase has been 1-2% annually among professors, beginning with 18% female professors in 2013 to 24% in 2017. In 2017, the number of female lecturers in an entry level job for academic posts in HEIs, was 51%. The report aims to follow the aspiration for Ireland to be “a world-leading country for gender equality in higher education” by 2026.

“The report aims to follow the aspiration for Ireland to be ‘a world-leading country for gender equality in higher education’ by 2026.”

The approach taken by the Gender Equality Taskforce consisted of reviewing recruitment and promotion policies and practices in HEIs, conducted by the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU). It was followed by consultations with stakeholders involving face-to-face meetings with the Gender Equality Taskforce and a stakeholder consultation event. The success of the consultation process and its outcomes were later assessed. The Taskforce also conducted an analysis of the data on academic staff recruitment and promotion by gender and identified gaps in data collection. It specifically noted gaps in professional, management and support staff data. It examined progress reports from HEIs on the HEA Expert Group Report recommendations and analysed the progress made at sectoral level. It also conducted a literature review of national and international practice, noting challenges and emerging solutions since 2016, choosing Norway and Switzerland as case studies. Finally, the Taskforce developed a three-year gender action plan.

Following the 2016 report, the Minister set up The Gender Equality Taskforce, featuring Ms. Marie O’Connor, Dr Patricia Mulcahy, Prof. Philip Nolan, Ms. Sheila Hunan and Mr. Ryan Shanks. The Taskforce established a plan of action, which is to accelerate the rate at which a gender balance is being achieved. Following the implementation of the action plan, all institutions have achieved Athena SWAN Institutional Bronze status, as stated by the Ms. O’Connor, the Chair of the Taskforce. The Athena SWAN Charter describes its own role as monitoring cis and trans men and women in academic roles in STEM and AHSSBL and professional and support staff in relation to their representation, progression of students into academia, journey through career milestones and working environment.

“It also conducted a literature review of national and international practice, noting challenges and emerging solutions since 2016, choosing Norway and Switzerland as case studies.”

However, the report still notes that the progress has been too slow, noting that there has never been a woman president in the university sector, and only 2 out of 14 presidents in the Institute of Technology (IoT) sector are women currently. It pointed out that different institutions were at different points in achieving a gender balance, meaning that each would have to follow their individual path to do so. Hence, the Gender Equality Taskforce recommends that each HEI set its own targets for the proportion of staff members of each gender which it aims to have in one, three and five-year periods. It advises that those targets be included in the HEI’s gender action plan, submitted annually to the Higher Education Authority (HEA) as part of the Strategic Dialogue process. It further suggests that progress on those goals also be reported to the HEA, associating them with financial incentives and consequences. The report notes that if the HEI does not make sufficient progress in relation to their goals, the HEA and the Minister will  adapt a more efficient approach.