Gender Equality High on the UL Agenda with Launch of Athena SWAN

The University of Limerick is celebrating International Women’s Day with the launch of the UL bid for an Athena SWAN Award, which recognises and celebrates good practice in recruiting, retaining and promoting women in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine) in higher education.  At a UL conference to mark International Women’s Day chaired by RTE’s Claire Byrne, UL President Professor Don Barry reiterated the institution’s commitment to gender equality at all levels in UL.

The conference entitled ‘Embracing the Past Informing the Future in STEMM” included presentations from former British MP Edwina Currie; Professor Sibel Erduran, Chair of STEM Education at UL; Professor Linda Doyle, Trinity College Dublin and Dan Twomey, Dell EMEA among others.

During 2015, the UK-based Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) announced that they would, for the first time, make access to their awards system possible outside of the UK by allowing Irish higher education institutions to sign up to the Athena SWAN Charter for women in science from Autumn 2014. The EU Commission are considering adopting Athena Swan as the EU standard. The University of Limerick has now officially launched their bid for an Athena SWAN award.

According to figures released by the HEA recently the University of Limerick continues to have the highest percentage of women at professorial level in the country, 31% or almost one third of professors at UL are female. This compares to a national average of only 19%.

Speaking at the conference, UL President Professor Don Barry said: “A university is about more than just buildings and facilities – it is the people who give universities life – they create a sense of energy and they provide the power to achieve great things. As you will be aware, in UL we are committed to ensuring that all academic staff and support staff are enabled to achieve their full potential through valuing diversity and equality of opportunity. The Athena SWAN process will provide the institution with a framework through which gender equality can be measured and improved upon across the institution and within STEMM departments in particular.”

The President outlined that University of Limerick’s track record of success in researching and promoting gender equality has been facilitated through funding support from the Atlantic Philanthropies and Science Foundation Ireland and the European Commission.  Currently UL, is a key partner and the only Irish University in a European Commission FP7 Funded cross national 5 year Project 2012-2017, FESTA - Female Empowerment in Science and Technology in Academia. FESTA is a collaborative project with partner universities in Sweden, Denmark, Italy, Germany, Bulgaria and Turkey. FESTA is concerned with implementing changes in the working environment of academic researchers, to encourage female researchers to stay and make a career in STEMM and to create organizational environments where their competence is valued and fostered. In particular, the European initiative will seek to address the working environment of researchers in the lower levels of their careers, to make it possible for them to advance to the ranks of highest scientific expertise.

Speaking at the Athena SWAN launch, HR Director, Tommy Foy set out that “the under-representation of women in senior level decision-making positions has been a cause of concern for academics, policy makers and organisations for some time. Establishing the causes for this imbalance and providing ways in which organisations can redress it has been the subject of much research and debate. A greater representation of women at committee and board-level positions facilitates progress towards improved gender balance at all levels in organisations is a key priority for UL. The Athena SWAN process requires us to clearly set out the institutions current position in a number of areas and more importantly requires us to clearly set out and commitment to plans for dealing with any areas of concern, that make it more difficult for women than their male counterparts to achieve their professional goals and ambitions. This is an exciting development for the Higher Education Sector in Ireland and we are delighted to be associated with the equality charter and hope to be successful in our endeavours to achieve the award in 2015.”

The ‘GEM’ programme (Gender Equality in Decision-Making) is a further example of the work UL has been doing in this regard which supports the key principles of Athena SWAN. This UL led project funded by the European Union ‘Progress Programme’ is aimed at developing initiatives to support the achievement of gender balance in decision-making roles. GEM is led by the Human Resources Division in UL in conjunction with the Kemmy Business School, the national employer’s federation Ibec and industry partners Dell EMEA,  with other European higher education Institutions. The GEM research team will investigate the role of HR-related practices such as recruitment and selection, performance management and promotions policy in encouraging gender balance in key decision- making positions.