In the almost two years since Mary Mitchell O’Connor became the country’s first Minister for Higher Education, it can hardly be disputed that gender equality has been the issue to dominate her time in office.
From establishing a dedicated Gender Equality Taskforce to creating 45 new senior posts in higher education institutes that are gender-specific, Mitchell O’Connor has been insistent in her commitment to championing women in academia, and to ushering in a new era of gender equality in higher education.
This is of course a commendable goal, and one that makes obvious sense.
But at a time when higher education in Ireland is facing a seemingly unending list of problems – at the core of which is the government’s continued unwillingness to commit to a funding model – it’s fair to say that gender equality has been one of few areas to which the government has dedicated significant time and energy.
So it was beyond jarring to see Mitchell O’Connor writing in the Independent this week that she hopes to “possibly” see a woman elected president of a university “within my lifetime”.
If Mitchell O’Connor is intent on making female representation in higher education the centrepiece of her time in office, the election of at least one woman president of an Irish university should be a goal that the government is making a number-one priority, rather than a tentative – and ambiguous – aim.
In Trinity, it’s far from inconceivable that the successor to Provost Patrick Prendergast, whose term concludes in 2021, could be female. Mitchell O’Connor’s targets are much more modest, though – and in the one area of higher education the government claims to be strong in.
It’s true that the government has had several “wins” on gender equality during Mitchell O’Connor’s tenure. But statements like this week’s leave open the question of how seriously she is taking the issue.
If Mitchell O’Connor is going to direct so much of her focus towards gender equality – even as universities’ desperate calls for funding go largely unheeded – she needs do more than make vague statements about long-term, undefined goals.