The Senior Academic Leadership Initiative – cracking the academic glass ceiling

5 Mar, 2020

Since 2016, the Higher Education Authority has compiled data on gender patterns in Irish Higher Education.

The 2019 data show that while women comprise 45% of University sector academic staff, they make up only 23% of all Professors in Irish higher education On a three-year average, women professors are just 6% of all women academics, while their male peers constitute 16% of all men holding academic contracts. The first step on the academic career ladder is lecturer, at which 69% of all women academics clustered. This compares with just 50% of all male academics (HEA 2019:7).

The problem is clear. Women’s academic progression is unequal to that of men. This is a consistent and persistent, pattern in Irish higher education. Athena SWAN equality plans and actions are beginning to address the gender gap. But cultural change takes time to embed in any organisation. Institutions of higher education are more prone to resist change than are other organisations.

Unlike in private sector bodies, the profit imperative – which can drive change – is absent. Unlike other places of employment, merit is the only valid currency. Promotions take place ‘on merit’. Yet, what is meritorious is not made explicit. Or, it is expressed in ways that reinforce gendered patterns and disadvantage women. If it were otherwise, we would not have the problem revealed by the data. The meaning of merit, then, is open to challenge. It is also open to the charge of reinforcing gender bias.

This is a summary of the thinking behind the Senior Academic Leadership Initiative introduced by Mary Mitchell-O’Connor as Minister of State for Higher Education, in November 2018.  She initiated and guided a process of reform on gender equality in Irish Higher Education through the Gender Equality Taskforce Report, and in addition, introduced 45 Professorships designed to advance the careers of academic women.

Although a novel initiative in Irish higher education, it is not unusual in the sector. In Australia, the universities of Adelaide, Monash and Melbourne have advertised women-only posts as part of their equal opportunities initiatives for the academic workforce. Women-only posts at all points of the academic career scale have proven hugely successful in the Technological University of Delft, Netherlands. German and Austrian universities have similar schemes.

The 20 SAL Initiative posts awarded in the first round (January 2020) will move the proportion of women professors from 23% to 26%.  When all 45 positions are allocated in another two years, it will bring the proportion of women professors in Irish higher education to 30%. This is a small step towards cracking the professorial glass ceiling. The long-lasting effect of the Initiative will be to change university cultures to fully value and reward the work of brilliant women working in higher education in Ireland and abroad.

In TU Dublin, we look forward to filling our SAL Initiative posts – the Full Professor of Inclusive Computer Science Education and Full Professor of Public Trust in the Media, Arts and Technology. If you want to know more, please visit our SALI webpage

Professor Yvonne Galligan

Director of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at TU Dublin