TCD history professor Jane Ohlmeyer says that while progress has been made to give females senior positions, universities are not changing at the pace they should be.

While workplaces increasingly recognise gender inequality as a problem to be tackled, data reveals that less than one in four professors in Irish universities are female. What is more, in their 400-year history of progress and achievement, the places that should act as beacons of excellence and merit have never had a female provost.

As we approach International Women’s Day, Jane Ohlmeyer, professor of modern history at Trinity College Dublin, founder and director of the Long Room Hub research institute, and chair of the Irish Research Council, explains why gender parity in Ireland’s higher education system can’t come fast enough.

According to the latest Higher Education Institutional Staff by Gender report (2018) published by the Higher Education Authority (HEA), in 2017 only 24% of professor posts in universities were occupied by women. This percentage is, of course, better than the staggering 8% back in 2001, and cracks are definitely showing in the glass ceiling of academia. Yet, women seem to have a hard time advancing from the entry level of their academic career, where they outnumber men (51% of lecturers are women, with this number dropping to 38% for senior lecturers) to higher-grade positions. Why is it still so difficult for universities to accept women into their most senior structures?

“The problem is partly structural and partly cultural” explains professor Ohlmeyer. “And when I say structural I just don’t think that there are enough senior women in the system. But I also think that universities are very conservative institutions and for a long time we’ve been dealing with the patriarchy and a very conservative body it is difficult for women to get into. And that’s not true only of Ireland, that’s true of academia in many European countries.”

Progress is being made, but we still have a long way to go

“To be very fair to Trinity,” adds Ohlmeyer, “in terms of the senior management of the university, there’s now a decent gender balance, but what we don’t have is enough senior female professors. And that’s really where we need to focus because senior women become role models and help deal with the leaky gender pipeline in the universities. We still have a long way to go, we’ve definitely made progress, but it’s painfully slow.”

“But I also think that universities are very conservative institutions and for a long time we’ve been dealing with the patriarchy and a very conservative body it is difficult for women to get into.”

Back in 2011, Ohlmeyer decided to run for provost as the only female candidate among men. What has changed for women in universities since then? “Well, the answer is that we’re still waiting for a female provost, in that sense nothing has changed. In Ireland, we had many opportunities to put a woman in, and we still haven’t managed to do it. Where I have seen progress is in the deans of research, where many of them are females, and traditionally this has been a male-dominated role. Obviously, it’s very encouraging to see women taking very senior leadership roles within research. Also, faculty deans, I know there are some women leading faculties, so there has been progress there as well. There is a more general awareness that there is a problem and I think that is significant,” Ohlmeyer notes.

Sanctions are needed

Ohlmeyer is welcoming the government’s plans to fund up to 30 women-only professorships in the next three years, to address the lack of women in senior-level academic positions. “I’d like to see these professorships go where they are most needed, be it in STEM or other areas in the health sciences and also in arts and humanities. My own discipline, history, is very male-dominated, too. I do think that these professorships are important, and we need to see them as part of a number of measures that will include rewarding good behaviour and punishing bad behaviour. So, in other words, the universities will comply if they know there is a sanction,” Ohlmeyer explains.

“We still have a long way to go, we’ve definitely made progress, but it’s painfully slow.”

“In the Irish Research Council, we’re saying that the universities must actively seek to retain their Athena SWAN institutional bronze awards until such time as they achieve silver level in order to be eligible to apply for funding. To my mind, these are real incentives for them to engage in the Athena SWAN process, which is all about changing our culture on the ground. There’s not one easy solution to the problem. Instead, it’s a whole range of measures which means the universities themselves, the government, the funding councils, we all need to be working in partnership with each other,” she adds.

“First, we need to recognise that we have a problem and then we need to implement changes to address it. Things are changing, but for me, the frustration is that they are not changing fast enough.”

By Irene Psychari.

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