Photo by Lois Kapila

Five of Ireland’s seven universities hold accreditation on the basis of gender equality, but none of the country’s 14 institutes of technology do.

Trinity, University of Limerick, UCD, DCU and UCC have all won the Athena Swan Bronze Award, which looks set to become a condition of research funding by the end of 2019.

Part of the issue is that universities and IoTs are on different schedules in applying – only DIT has applied so far. But once they start trying to work up the certification ladder, they are likely to find it hard.

“It is a real challenge because most of the IoTs have been focused on subject areas that fewer women went into in the first place,” said Claire Marshall, the programme manager of the Trinity Centre for Gender Equality and Leadership.

“[IoTs] have always had a history of being much more male dominated while universities that have stronger arts components tend to attract much more female students,” she said.

What Is Athena Swan?

The Athena Swan Charter was established in the UK in 2005 to “to encourage and recognise commitment to advancing the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) employment in higher education and research”.

Run by Equality Challenge Unit (ECU), a charity, it offers gold, silver and bronze awards.

The Bronze Award recognises that an institution has a solid foundation for eliminating gender bias and developing an inclusive culture that values all staff.

For the Silver Award, the criteria is around demonstrating impact. So universities and IoTs must show what changes they have made – and how this has led to positive effects on gender equality.

No entire institution holds the Gold Award yet, but some departments within a few institutions have been won it.

The Athena Swan (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) Bronze Award requires the submission of a report including statistics on gender equality at all levels: from undergraduate students to postgraduates, from lecturers to senior managing staff.

The report must show that the institution interprets the data and from that can identify problems and possible solutions to those problems. There must also be a four-year action plan for improvement.

“In short, it is about identifying gender issues, understanding why those issues exist, and putting together really specific and measurable actions to address those issues,” said Sarah Fink ECU’s equality charter adviser for Athena Swan.

After four years, an institution can apply for the Silver Award or re-apply for the Bronze Award. When re-applying for the Bronze, it must show progress and development from the previous application.

“To move up to silver, it is about evaluating the impact of those actions and identifying good practice,” said Fink. “In terms of why applicants are unsuccessful, this can be for a whole range of reasons related to the award criteria (e.g. lack of data analysis, a weak action plan, etc).”

Athena Swan and Ireland

The Athena Swan awards were brought to Ireland in 2015, with the help of a network of staff across our institutes of education and the Centre for Women in Science and Engineering Research (WiSER), which is based at Trinity.

The Higher Education Authority intends to make Athena Swan accreditation a condition of research funding for higher education institutions (HEIs) by the end of 2019.

“The three major research funding agencies, which are Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), Health Research Board (HRB), and the Irish Research Council set out a declaration, that they will require ITs applying for funding to have succeeded in a Bronze Award application by 2019,” said Professor Brian O’Neill, chair of DIT’s steering group for Athena Swan.

If the HEA makes accreditation a condition of funding, all HEIs will have to hold at least the Bronze Award by 2020 and the Silver Award by 2023.

Trinity and the University of Limerick were the first to earn the Bronze Award, says Marshall, who in addition to her role at Trinity’s centre was also involved in WiSER.

That “was on the back of work we had already been doing. Both ourselves [Trinity] and Limerick were involved in separate EU projects about gender equality which followed similar kinds of initiatives as the Athena Swan,” she said.

“Athena SWAN … is about more than ‘fixing the numbers’ and ‘fixing the women’ – it represents a way of changing the culture in Irish higher education.” Marshall said. “Even with the best will in the world, it is a slow process and to see any impact takes a long time.”

Running Behind

Maynooth University and National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG) are the only universities in Ireland that do not hold gender-equality accreditation from Athena Swan.

“We are starting our process now,” said Claire McGing, the Athena Swan project officer for Maynooth University. “Gender equality should be an aim within itself regardless of financial or other advantages.”

NUIG failed to respond to our queries about its lack of Athena Swan accreditation by the time this was published.

So far only one of Ireland’s 14 IoTs has even applied for the Athena Swan accreditation: in November 2016, DIT submitted its application, but it was unsuccessful.

“We were disappointed not to be awarded on the first time, however most institutions applying for the Athena Swan accreditation don’t receive it on the first application,” said O’Neill, of DIT. (That’s definitely true of DIT and Maynooth, but not of Trinity and UL.)

“It’s a learning process and we fully recognise this is a very important agenda, which we have fully embraced as a whole institution to get to grips with precisely what’s needed and how we can successfully apply it,” O’Neill said.

“Now we have a real time frame and a real goal, you’ll see a general sectoral approach to it now,” he said.

A June 2016 HEA report on gender equality in higher education shows a relatively even pipeline up to the grade of lecturer, and then a sharp divergence, something that O’Neill says institutions will have to examine and work on.

“For IoTs our career structures are different. The conditions are different,” said O’Neill. But still, “there’s a point of divergence you have to address: what is it that’s going on within your institution that is preventing women progressing to more senior levels?”

“As part of Athena Swan what we are trying to achieve is a change of culture,” he said, but there are also “some specifics that we need to get at”.

Those include addressing DIT’s lack of childcare facilities. “DIT does not have dedicated childcare facilities, it’s been clearly flagged, that is one finding,” O’Neill said.

“In terms of organisation of the workload, we think we have reasonably good family friendly policies in terms of supporting parental leave. We can do more in to actually support people coming back from parental leave,” he said.

“That’s one of the things that we are trying to find other ways around the formal career structure to take on board what are the gender equality issues that will impact on women particularly as they develop their career,” he said.

HEA and Athena Swan

The HEA has said that if HEIs in Ireland have not been accredited by Athena Swan by the end 2019 they may become ineligible for research funding.

But there are different time frames for universities and IoTs. Universities have three years from now to get the Bronze Award and seven to get the Silver Award.

IoTs are currently working towards mergers into technological universities (TUs). For example DIT, ITB and ITT have a plan to merge into a technological university. The IoT clock for Athena Swan won’t start ticking until they have formally merged.

“The IoTs are only starting to work towards this certification, they are members of the National Athena SWAN committee and so will be applying in the future,” said Gemma Irvine, head of policy and strategic planning for the HEA when asked why no IoT have the Athena Swan.

“Every HEI should be able to achieve a Bronze level even if they have terrible gender balance and a very negative campus, however, if a HEI can show that they know this and are aware of the problems, and have identified potential solutions,” Dr Irvine went on to say.

The three largest research-funding agencies in Ireland made a statement supporting the importance of gender equality by requiring that all HEIs applying for funding in the future will need to have obtained the Athena awards.

Also, the new performance framework currently being developed by the Department of Education and Skills includes gender equality as a metric. So when this is implemented, gender equality will be taken into account when allocations of funding are made in the future.

[UPDATE: This article headline was updated on 23 June at 22.46pm, to make it accurate.]

Dan Grennan is an Irish student of journalism at DIT, and a freelance writer.

Nikki Murphy is a student of journalism at DIT.

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