Higher education institutions will risk funding penalties if they fail to address gender inequality

Maura O'Shea

By Maura O'Shea

Posted: 27 June, 2016

Higher education institutions will risk funding being withheld if they fail to address gender inequality in the coming years.

That’s one of the outcomes of a report published today (27.06.16) on gender equality in higher education.  The report was compiled by the Expert Group commissioned by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) to undertake a national review of gender equality in higher education institutions.  The Expert Group was chaired by Máire Geoghegan-Quinn.

7 people stand holding identical books

Dr Gemma Irvine (Head of Policy and Strategic Planning at the HEA), Ryan Shanks (expert group member), Dr Helen Peterson (expert group member), Máire Geoghegan-Quinn (chair of the expert group), Professor Pat O’Connor (expert group member), Tom Boland (CEO of the HEA) and Dr Maeve O’Riordan (HEA)

The gender equality review began in September 2015, and the report published today includes objectives, recommendations, proposed timings and key performance indicators for all relevant stakeholders in the higher education sector.  It also contains an in-depth analysis of the gender balance of higher education staff across all grades of employment, as well as management teams, academic councils and governing boards.

Commenting today, Ms. Geoghegan-Quinn said:

This report clearly demonstrates that significant gender inequality remains in higher education, and this must be addressed – for equality, social and economic reasons.

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 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. 

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.”

In the report published today, the Expert Group recommends that:

  • Each higher education institution introduce mandatory quotas for academic promotion, based on the flexible cascade model where the proportion of women and men to be promoted / recruited is based on the proportion of each gender at the grade immediately below.
  • Gender equality is identified as a national priority and key system objective in the Higher Education System Performance Framework.
  • Agreed targets and indicators of success are included in higher education institutions’ compacts with the HEA.  Funding will, therefore, be linked to institutions’ performance, and will be withheld if they fail to meet agreed targets.
  • In so far as possible, the final pool of candidates at the final selection step in the appointment process for new presidents of higher education institutions will be comprised equally of women and men.
  • All candidates for presidential appointments at higher education institutions will have demonstrable experience of leadership in advancing gender equality, and this will be included in the recruitment criteria.
  • Each institution will appoint a vice-president for equality, who will be a full academic member of the executive management team and who will report directly to the president.
  • Key decision-making bodies (concerned with resource allocation, appointments and promotions) in higher education institutions will consist of at least 40% women and at least 40% men.
  • The recruitment and promotion procedures currently used by higher education institutions will be reviewed to ensure they are gender-sensitive.
  • Higher education institutions will apply for and achieve an Athena SWAN institutional award within three years.  Within seven years, research-funding agencies will require institutions to have attained an Athena SWAN silver institutional award to be eligible for funding.  (Athena SWAN is a system of awards – granted at bronze, silver and gold levels – to recognise institutions and departments for progress in addressing gender inequality).
  • The HEA will establish a comprehensive database of staff in higher education institutions to provide an evidence base for monitoring progress in addressing gender inequality.
  • A national committee to support gender equality in higher education will be established by the HEA, in partnership with the Irish University Association and Institutes of Technology Ireland.

Commenting today, Tom Boland, CEO of the HEA, said: “The requirement for higher education institutions to promote gender balance among students and staff, and for the Higher Education Authority to promote the attainment of equality of opportunity, is enshrined in law.

While the institutions have, to varying degrees, sought to address gender inequality in the past, the intractable under-representation of women among staff at senior levels clearly signals the need for new, even radical, approaches to tackling this issue.

The HEA strongly endorses the findings and recommendations of the Expert Group that conducted this review. Over the coming months, we will continue to liaise with the Department of Education and Skills, the higher education institutions, research funding agencies and other key stakeholders to develop a detailed implementation plan. The plan will include a robust system of follow-up evaluation and performance monitoring linked to funding through the HEA’s strategic dialogue process”.

HEA Gender Key Facts and Figures

HEA Gender Implementation Plan

HEA Gender Equality Report

HEA Review of Gender Equality in Irish Higher Education

More: Department of Education and Skills, gender equality, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn

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