The Irish government is to finance 45 women-only professorial positions over the next three years, to tackle gender inequality in Irish universities. The first 15 positions will be in place by September 2019 and by 2021 all 45 positions will be implemented. It will cost the Government €4.7 million annually.

Minister for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor recently published Accelerating Gender Equality in Irish Higher Education Institutions, an action plan to address the slow progress being made towards gender equality. According the report, there were only 24% female professors in 2017 despite women making up half of the sector workforce. There has never been a female president in the university sector, while in the institute of technology sector, only 2 out of the 14 presidents were female. The rate of progress in relation to the representation of women in senior academic roles has been only 1-2% every year in the period 2013-2017.

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O’Connor aims to have “40% of professors within our institutions to be female by 2024,” The report’s vision is that “by 2026, Ireland will be a world-leading country for gender equality in higher education.” But the report states that if the change continues at the same pace, it could take 20 years to reach 40% of women becoming professors across seven universities. For institutes of technology it could take between seven to ten years to pass the target of 40% female professorship. Mitchell O’Connor said that “this is just one of the myriad of initiatives that will address and improve the paltry proportion of women in senior third-level positions.”

The report has recommended that “all HEI (Higher Education Institutions) shall set ambitious short, medium and long-term targets” of one, three, and five years and that a Centre of Excellence for Gender Equality should be established to provide “centralised support for HEIs”. It also advises that HEIs should “strive for gender balance in the final pool of candidates for all competitions.” Funding for universities will also be linked to how well they are addressing gender inequality. Universities will be required to apply for an Institutional Bronze award by 2019 under the Athena Swan charter. But female-only professorships will be restricted to areas where women are underrepresented such as engineering and science and where other initiatives have failed.

Micheline Sheehy Skeffington, who won a landmark Equality Tribunal case in 2014 after ruling that she was discriminated against based on her gender and should be promoted to senior lecturer, said that “gender-specific posts or quotas are a good idea,” but “on a temporary basis.”

The report also looks into the practices of universities abroad. The University of Melbourne advertised only women-only positions for their School of Mathematics and Statistics at lecturer, senior lecturer and associate professor level. The Max Plank Institute in Berlin launched the Lisa Meitner excellence programme for women-only tenure track positions. The University of Delft in the Netherlands offers women-only fellowships with a generous research funding at assistant, associate and full professor level.

However, the funding of women-only posts could face legal challenges that are “very likely” to occur. Irish law forbids discrimination on certain grounds like gender and women-only posts breaches this. According to Claire O’Driscoll from the law firm Flynn O’Driscoll, a solicitor who specialises in employment law, “they are allowed to have a bias towards female roles if there is specific policy there.” However, Minister Mitchell O’Connor is not concerned by any possible legal challenge and said that the action plan has undergone “rigorous assessment” to ensure that it complies to Irish and European Union laws. The Higher Education Authority (HEA)  and Department of Education (DoE) said that legal advice deems that these proposals are acceptable under Irish law.

A man in the Netherlands took a case to the country’s Institute for Human Rights, in which he claimed that women-only post infringed his right to equality. But the institute ruled against him, and said that this action was a positive measure.

The Irish Universities Association (IUA) welcomed the plan. All its seven members are “fully committed” to implement meaningful changes and “wholly supportive of the Taskforce recommendations.”

The University of Limerick also welcomes the report. Its president, Dr. Des Fitzgerald, is “delighted” that the “Government has recognised that this important work needs to be resourced.” The University leads the way in gender equality in academia. 33% of its female professors are women, as well as its Chancellor and two Vice Presidents being women. UCD currently stands with 24% of its professors are women and its 30% of its Heads of Schools are women.