Dr Jennifer Brennan and Dr Allison Kenneally
Chairperson, members of the Joint Committee, on behalf of THEA, we appreciate this opportunity to speak with you today about Recommendations 26 to 31 made by the Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality.
Efforts to significantly improve gender equality in Irish higher education institutions (HEIs) have accelerated since 2015. This was catalysed by the opening of the UK-based Athena SWAN Charter and award process to Irish HEIs, supported by funding from the Higher Education Authority (HEA). From 2015, Irish HEIs began to apply for Athena SWAN awards. At the time of writing, the majority of THEA members hold a Bronze Institutional Award.
Since 2016, our members have been implementing the recommendations of two major national reports of gender equality in higher education.[2,3] After the 2016 report, HEIs were required to implement Gender Action Plans and report on these regularly to the HEA. The HEA also began to publish annual reports of gender-disaggregated staff data from Irish HEIs. 
Following the 2018 report, all HEIs have adopted changes aimed at ensuring that “the proportion of men and women to be recruited or promoted to a certain level is based on the proportion of each at the career level directly below”. The 2018 report also established a Centre of Excellence for Gender Equality within the HEA  (now Centre of Excellence for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion) and a “women-only Professorship” scheme, the Senior Academic Leadership Initiative.
A further national equality review in higher education is currently taking place and we look forward to seeing the recommendations arising from the review.
In recent years, the focus has shifted from solely gender equality to a broader equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) agenda, based on the nine grounds of discrimination in equality legislation. The commitment of THEA’s members to the broad EDI agenda was enshrined in the THEA Gender & Diversity Statement published in 2018.  Gender equality plans in HEIs have become EDI plans, taking into account other EDI areas both separately and as they intersect with gender equality.
A major development related to gender-based violence has been the implementation of the Framework for Consent in Higher Education Institutions.  In March 2021, THEA published the report of the THEA Promoting Consent and Preventing Sexual Violence (PROPEL) project.  The report made a series of recommendations, including a number of resources which should be established within HEIs to support the implementation of the Framework, and work is ongoing to put in place these resources.
Overall, much progress has been made in supporting improved gender equality (and the broader EDI agenda) in higher education over a relatively short time (since the mid-2010s). Between September 2015 and December 2020, the percentage of female Senior Lecturers (the highest academic grade in the sector) increased from 31% to 36%, while the percentage of female professional/ managerial/ support staff at the highest Grades increased from 14% to 25. [12,13] It is worth noting that the institutes of technology have a track record of appointing female Presidents, and it is very positive to see that three of the five technological universities are led by women.
Participation in Athena SWAN has been a strong driver of recent progress, as have the recommendations within the two national gender reports. However, much remains to be done to accelerate progress, embed improvements and spread the lessons learned across the wider public service. Turning specifically to recommendations 26-31 of the Citizen’s Assembly Report, we would like to make the following points:
- In relation to Recommendation 27, higher education will need to put significant efforts into co-creating (with our students) an inclusive learning environment, celebrating diversity and ensuring that the curriculum and the teaching strategies are inclusive. THEA’s members are working on a project to embed gender equality and intersectionality into the curriculum, which is supported by the HEA’s Gender Equality Enhancement Fund.  All THEA members are rolling out dedicated training on sexual violence and harassment to students and staff, and while this is positive, it is clear that age-appropriate training on consent should be offered as early as possible in the education system.
- In relation to Recommendation 28, we are rolling out an online Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education training programme developed by the members of the Irish Universities Association. We have also started to revise policies and procedures through the lens of gender equality and EDI.
- In relation to Recommendation 29, we strongly agree that the SUSI Grant system should be reformed to provide support for part-time students. In the 2020-2021 academic year, 25% of students enrolled  in THEA members were registered as part-time, and 52.5% of those part-time students were female.
- In relation to Recommendation 30, we acknowledge that more work to encourage men into female-dominated careers is required, and the work to encourage women into male-dominated careers should be complemented by reforming the curriculum from primary school level onwards to address underlying factors that discourage women from being interested in STEM.
Thank you for your time and we look forward to the discussion today.
2 HEA National Review of Gender Equality in Irish Higher Education Institution (2016) https://hea.ie/assets/uploads/2017/04/hea_review_of_gender_equality_in_irish_higher_education.pdf
3 Accelerating Gender Equality in Irish Higher Education Institutions – Gender Action Plan 2018-2020 (2018) https://hea.ie/assets/uploads/2018/11/Gender-Equality-Taskforce-Action-Plan-2018-2020.pdf
10 “Safe, Respectful, Supportive and Positive – Ending Sexual Violence and Harassment in Irish Higher Education Institutions” (2019) https://www.education.ie/en/Publications/Education-Reports/framework-for-consent-in-highereducation-institutions.pdf