Why Ireland is creating women-only professorships at its universities

Ireland is creating 45 senior academic positions over three years specifically for women in the country's universities and technology institutes.

Government creating 45 senior academic positions for women candidates over the next 3 years

Pat O’Connor, a professor emeritus of sociology and social policy at the University of Limerick, was the first female prof at the institution. (Submitted by Pat O’Connor)

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When Pat O'Connor started working at the University of Limerick in 1997, she was the school's first and only woman professor.

"I felt very daunted actually by it ... and I felt the shoes of a professor were very large and very male," the retired sociology and social policy professor told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"So I hope we can create a world where women, young women, don't feel so daunted by those shoes or don't see them as so very male."

O'Connor was part the Irish task force that's behind a new government plan to tackle gender inequality in higher education. The plan includes the creation of 45 senior academic positions over the next three years specifically for women at the country's universities and technology institutes.

The jobs will be in addition to existing staff positions, and will be created in areas where there is "clear evidence" of women being underrepresented, the government said. 

O'Connor says the process of applying for these new positions will be as rigorous as any other academic posting.

"The criteria will be the normal ones at professorate level," O'Connor said. "There's no question that people will kind of come in off the street to get a professorial position if they're a woman."

Women make up 51 per cent of entry-level teaching jobs at Irish universities, but only 24 per cent of professorships, according to the government's Gender Action Plan for Higher Education

There has never been a woman president at any of Ireland's seven universities.

'The paltry proportion of women'

The ultimate goal of the action plan is for women to make up 40 per cent of all professorships by the year 2024.

"This is just one of a myriad of initiatives that will address and improve on the paltry proportion of women in senior third-level positions," Higher Education Minister Mary Mitchell O'Connor said over the weekend when announcing the plan.

Irish Higher Education Minister Mary Mitchell O'Connor has announced new initiatives to improve gender equality at Irish universities and technical institutes. (Domenic Aquilina/EPA)

Other aspects of the plan include tying federal funding for universities to efforts to narrow the gender gap in senior academic positions, creating specific targets for women hires and ensuring a gender balance in the final pool of candidates for all positions.

The Irish Universities' Association and the Technological Higher Education Association have both welcomed the moves, according to the Irish Times.

Critics call plan sexist, patronizing 

But not everyone is on board.

Social media comments about the announcement shows backlash from people who say the initiative discriminates against men and is patronizing to women.

The government has said it's already bracing for potential lawsuits on the basis of gender discrimination.

Professor O'Connor isn't worried about the legal challenges, noting that universities in several countries, including Holland and Australia, already advertise women-only professorships.

As for arguments about hand-holding and sexism, she points to several studies that have shown that people rate resumes with male names more favourably than identical resumes with female names. 

"So we know that there are endemic systemic pressures which prejudice even the most ... intelligent men and women to favour men," she said.

"This is part of an overall package, which will attempt at a structural and cultural level to level the playing field for women."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Pat O'Connor produced by Sarah Jackson. 

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