From Duckling to SWAN – The Evolution of Gender Equality in Irish Universities


In February 2018, University College Cork (UCC) announced their commitment to appoint a minimum of 40% of women in all major decision-making bodies within the university by 2022. This commitment forms part of a four-year initiative aimed at achieving equal representation of women across all areas of the university.  UCC’s pledge to tackle gender inequality is just one of many made by Irish universities in the past year, marking a renewed commitment by Higher Education Institutions (HEI’s) across the country to address gender imbalance.


There is no better benchmark for the progression of gender equality in HEI’s than the Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) initiative, a project aimed at recognising and promoting gender equality in higher education. The organisation awards three levels of recognition to HEI’s, with the bronze award serving as entry level recognition. When the Athena SWAN initiative was brought to Ireland in 2015, Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and University of Limerick (UL) were the only institutions that met the criteria for a bronze award. As of the last recognition cycle in April 2017, five of Ireland’s seven universities have achieved bronze status, with TCD and UL boasting three bronze departmental awards apiece. Initiatives like unconscious bias training, access to on-site crèches and ensuring gender balance on decision-making committees are among the measures taken by universities to eradicate gender inequality in the workplace. With only NUI Galway and NUI Maynooth yet to receive a bronze award, it is evident that Irish universities have begun to recognize the eradication of gender inequality as a pertinent issue.


The progress made by these universities is poignant, but there is still tremendous scope for improvement. Not one of Ireland’s 14 Institutes for Technology has achieved bronze Athena SWAN accreditation, the level of women in high-level positions in HEI’s remains disparagingly low and there is yet to be a female head of an Irish university. However, the future of gender equality in higher education is anything but stagnant. The Higher Educational Authority (HEA) has announced that by 2020, the attainment of a bronze Athena SWAN award will be a prerequisite for securing research funding. Science Foundation Ireland and the Irish Research Council are among the institutions that have pledged support for this initiative. The advancement of HEI’s is now intrinsically linked to the eradication of gender inequality, and the mutually inclusive goal must be improvement.