Prof Kerstin Mey’s appointment as interim president of the University of Limerick (UL) earlier this week has – rightly – been lauded as historic.
She is the first woman to lead one of Ireland’s universities in the 400 year-long history of third-level education in Ireland.
The newly appointed Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris described it as a “historic appointment” which is indisputably true albeit bromidic.
However, the appointment is also a classic case of too little, too late. That it took this long for a female president to be appointed is a damning indictment of the higher education sector.
The appointment is noteworthy, but it is meaningless if not followed up with tangible actions to ensure that the leadership of universities continues to move away from its tradition of being impenetrably male dominated.
On Twitter, Harris asserted that the appointment meant “a glass ceiling shattered” – an oversimplified view of the barriers women face in academia.
Claiming that one appointment is all that was required to “shatter” the glass ceiling is disrespectful to women who have been advocating for greater equality in academia for decades.
Irish universities have a chequered history when it comes to gender equality. Irish universities have consistently underachieved on Athena SWAN, an initiative designed to improve gender balance at third-level.
In November, this newspaper reported that Trinity’s gender equality efforts are being “hampered by the fragmented structure” in which many key stakeholders interact with each other, according to a confidential report
In 2017, Provost Patrick Prendergast came under fire for appointing only eight women on his 46-member Provost Council, who act as an intimate network to various sectors for Provost Patrick Prendergast.
Until universities properly grapple with the myriad of structural barriers women in academia face, claiming that the appointment of a female president of a university is enough to shatter the glass ceiling is simply disingenuous.
We now, finally, have a woman as an interim president of an Irish university, which is not to be sniffed at. We do not know, however, when a woman will first be appointed to the role in a permanent capacity – it will be long overdue.