Setting Agendas on Gender Equality in the Higher Education Sector in Ireland

Sustained research by Professor Pat O’Connor, University of Limerick on gender equality within the Higher Education Sector in Ireland has influenced public debate on the issue as well as contributing to setting agendas at international level.

Professor O’Connor’s research has focused on the under-representation of women in the professoriate and in senior management. She has been concerned with the structures, cultures, procedures and practices that have perpetuated the under-representation of women at these levels. Her work has underlined the fact that advances in gender equality are neither permanent nor total. Thus for example, in 1975, 5% of academics at professorial level in Ireland were women, but by 1984 this had fallen to 2% despite increases in the total proportion of women academics. By 2013the proportion nationally was still only 19%. Furthermore, there was a significant gap in the percentage of women at professorial level between institutions in Ireland: UL had 31% while NUI Galway and TCD had only 14%. Such variation over time and between universities clearly suggests that gender inequality stems from structural, cultural and systemic biases.

Although women now make up more than half of the students and fifty percent of the entrance level academic staff in Irish public universities, four-fifths of those at professorial level and in senior management are men. For Professor O’Connor, such patterns ultimately reflect a kind of gender colonisation that is unacceptable in publicly funded organisations. Her work has challenged explanations that these patterns simply reflect women’s ‘nature’ or priorities. Professor O’Connor explains; “The existence of significant variation within the university sector in terms of the proportion of women at professorial level clearly indicates the importance of organisations owning this problem and undermines arguments which suggest that the under-representation of women in such positions simply reflects women’s lack of ambition or caring responsibilities.”

Professor O’Connor’s research has included documentary analysis as well as interviews and comparisons of trends over time and between universities. Thus for example, her work on senior management compared and contrasted trends emerging in Ireland with those in countries such as Portugal, Australia, New Zealand and Sweden. It shows a lack of interest in gender inequality in the Irish system. Most recently European funding through the FESTA project has enabled her to look at these issues in the specific context of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Tom Boland, CEO, Higher Education Authority highlighted the impact of Professor O’Connor’s research in the area of gender equality in academia. “Through her publications, public addresses and personal networking she ensured that issues relating to gender, and in particular inequality for female academics and researchers, was never far from policy debates about the future of higher education and research in Ireland.”

Professor O’Connor concludes: “Gender inequality is a difficult and important problem that goes beyond the scarcity of role models and mentors for women in academia. It is only through a consistent focus on engaging in research and influencing public debate in this field, that we will raise awareness of the kinds of structures, cultures, processes and practices that perpetuate gender inequality. Ultimately, this research aims to increase the opportunities for woman in academia and reframe our understanding of the importance of a diversity of perspectives in contributing to innovation within organisations and ultimately to national economic growth.”

The research was conducted by the University of Limerick and was supported by the European Commission, Irish Research Council, Riksbankens Jubileumsfond: The Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences and Swedish Research Council for Health, Working Life and Welfare.

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