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Irish universities risk funding cuts over gender inequality

Universities and colleges in Ireland face having their funding withheld if they do not act to deal with gender inequality among their faculty through mandatory quotas.

The measure was among several recommended in a major report on gender inequality by the Expert Group, which was commissioned by the Higher Education Authority (HEA). The HEA is a government institution tasked with the oversight and regulation of higher education institutions, and has sway over funding matters.

Gender inequality is perceived as a major problem in Irish tertiary institutions. As The Irish Times noted, Ireland has never seen a female president for any of its universities since the first was established over 400 years ago. Additionally, while roughly half of Irish university lecturers are women, only one-fifth (19 percent) of professors are female.

The stark gender imbalance pushed authorities to pursue a comprehensive review of the Irish university system, especially in regard to gender.

“This report clearly demonstrates that significant gender inequality remains in higher education, and this must be addressed – for equality, social and economic reasons,” said former EU commissioner Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, the Expert Group’s chair, in comments posted on the HEA website.

“In undertaking this review, we quickly realised that the ‘fix the women’ approach – aimed at getting women to change to fit the existing culture – will not work.  Gender balance in top leadership positions will not be achieved in our lifetimes if we just wait for change to naturally occur.”

The report recommended the implementation of mandatory gender quotas for academic promotion. Based on the ‘cascade model’, men and women would have to be recruited in proportion to the proportion of each gender at the grade immediately below.

The report urged state funding to be tied to an institution’s performance in addressing gender inequality. Candidates for college and university presidents are required to show experience of leadership in the advancement of gender equality.

Also, the report proposed that key decision-making bodies in tertiary institutions are made up of at least 40% women and at least 40% men.

Geoghegan-Quinn said the measures were justified due to the often subtle but still powerful barriers that women face in the academic community.

“The fact that women are not found in the same proportion as men in the most senior positions in higher education institutions is not because women are not talented or driven enough to fill these roles; it is because numerous factors within the institutions – conscious and unconscious, cultural and structural – mean women face a number of barriers to progression, which are not experienced to the same degree by men.  Our review shows that systematic barriers in the organisation and culture within institutions means that talent alone is not always enough to guarantee success,” she said.

“As a result, our recommendations focus on how organisation and culture must change to achieve gender equality.  The recommendations are deliberately ambitious and radical.  They recognise that productivity cannot be maximised without full development of the workforce.  Achieving gender equality will require genuine, long-term commitment and investment from managers at every level, and this must be led from the top, with the ultimate responsibility for its achievement sitting with the Presidents of the higher education institutions.”

Tom Boland, CEO of the HEA, endorsed the report, and said the authority would work with the relevant parties over the coming months to craft an implementation plan.

Image via Vimeo.

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