An European Commission Funded Project Exploring Gender Inequality in the Academy in Ireland
Project title: Exploring gender equality in Irish higher education: Qualitative case-study research into the response to, and process of, Athena SWAN (2018-2022)
Project acronym: GendeResearchIreland
Dr. Monica O’Mullane
ISS21, UCC, Cork, Ireland
This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 750408
“I would seek to promote the fellowship with a zeal reflecting the sentiment of the extraordinary woman in science who inspired this programme, Professor Marie Skłodowska-Curie.”
Dr Monica O’Mullane, submitted MSCA application, 2016
GendeResearchIreland – Overview
GendeResearchIreland is a four-year fellowship research project hosted by the Institute for Social Science in the 21st Century (ISS21), University College Cork, Ireland. It is being conducted by Dr Monica O’Mullane, a Research Fellow funded by the EC Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship (Career Restart Panel) programme.
It has been shown that gender equality interventions in the higher education sector are vital in addressing career advancement challenges facing female academics and researchers, in particular the higher up the career ladder researchers progress. GendeResearchIreland is exploring a gender equality intervention, the Athena SWAN Charter, which seeks to encourage commitment to advancing the careers of women in science. It has been shown that barriers to career advancement are mainly due to institutional-level factors, rather than individual-level ones, such as career drive or skill.
GendeResearchIreland is exploring gender equality in Irish higher education through qualitative research on the Athena SWAN Charter, launched in the UK in 2005 and managed there by Advance HE. It is a gender equality programme which seeks to promote good practice in recruiting, retaining and promoting women in science and research. Athena SWAN was introduced to the Irish higher education sector in 2015, coordinated in the Republic of Ireland by the Higher Education Authority (HEA). It has been designated a central role in addressing gender inequalities in Irish higher education, as recommended in the The Report of the Expert Group: HEA National Review of Gender Equality in Irish Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) (2016) (Expert Group Report) “as a useful tool in assisting institutions in changing their organisational culture” (page 17). The Expert Group Report recommended that Athena SWAN award attainment is a requirement for research funding eligibility; HEIs in Ireland could potentially lose access to research funding if they do not achieve the awards in a set timeframe.
Within this context, GendeResearchIreland will explore the change processes instigated by the Athena SWAN Charter programme in three cases (three Irish higher education institutions). The project seeks to understand the role, position and perception of Athena SWAN within Irish higher education. The research will look in particular at how Athena SWAN is being adopted and utilised in higher education, in an Irish context, how institutions respond to the change process implied in the initiative, and why the processes of Athena SWAN vary in different contexts.
Dr Caitríona Ní Laoire is Monica’s mentor for GendeResearchIreland. Dr Ní Laoire was also the Irish PI on the multi-country FP7 funded GENOVATE (Transforming Organisational Culture for Gender Equality in Research and Innovation) project, in which Monica also participated, as scientific coordinator of the Slovak partner team. An Advisory Group for GendeResearchIreland was established at the outset to provide advice and consultation to Dr Monica O’Mullane, including Professor Carol Linehan, Professor Fred Powell and Dr Allen White, all of whom are based in University College Cork. Monica is incredibly blessed and grateful to be able to consult with such a kind and engaging group of experts!
Monica is involved in a number of other activities, such as the ISS21 Genders, Sexualities and Families (GSF) Cluster reading group, meeting three/ four times a year, as well co-founding with Dr Caitríona Ní Laoire the ISS21 Gender and the Academy Research Group.
GendeResearchIreland Symposium: Reflections on Institutionalising Gender Equality in Higher Education (14.11.2022) University College Cork
A symposium bringing together experts, practitioners and activists interested in the topic of embedding gender equality in higher education institutions took place on Monday 14th November 2022 in UCC. The symposium was hosted by the GendeResearchIreland project, funded by the European Commission’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie Action mobility fellowship programme. The event marks the conclusion of the project, finishing December 2022. The project was carried out by Dr Monica O’Mullane, ISS21.
The event was opened by President of UCC, John O’Halloran, followed by speeches from Professor Nuala Finnegan, Chair of the UCC Equality Committee, and Dr Caitríona Ní Laoire, Deputy Director of ISS21 and GendeResearchIreland project mentor.
The topic of embedding gender equality was reflected upon through Dr O’Mullane’s presentation of a snapshot of her research study’s findings. The study, carried out as part of the GendeResearchIreland project, sought to explore the process of embedding gender equality in three Irish universities through the implementation of the Athena SWAN Ireland Charter. Drawing from data collected, primarily from 34 interviews conducted with university staff who are driving the implementation of the Athena SWAN Ireland Charter, Dr O’Mullane shared findings on the challenges facing staff while embedding gender equality. An interesting finding shared was on the theme of ‘institutional happy talk’, a term coined by Sara Ahmed in her seminal book ‘On Being Included’ (2013), which refers to “manically positive” (research participant) messaging communicated by staff members when reflecting publicly on their work in rolling out diversity programmes. Dr O’Mullane’s study confirms the existence and persistence of ‘institutional happy talk’ in her research study, raising awareness and affirming the challenges facing staff in Irish universities. Monica suggested that protected space for reflection on actions done or being proposed for embedding gender equality is crucial to meaningful and sustainable action, as well as ensuring dialogue on core concepts underpinning this work, such as gender equality.
This presentation was followed by reflections from the invited panel of international experts, namely, Professor Fiona Mackay (University of Edinburgh, Scotland), Dr Mariana Szapuová (Comenius University, Slovakia) and Dr Charoula Tzanakou (Oxford Brookes University, England).
The discussion and debate following the presentations highlighted the importance and contribution of this research study within the Irish context. Symposium attendees came from across Irish higher education institutions. The visual below created by Hazel Hurley captures creatively themes from the day’s discussion.
Following the stimulating seminar hosted by GendeResearchIreland in 2019 with Professor Uduak Archibong (University of Bradford, UK), this symposium was equally provocative, insightful, and highly motivating.
This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No.750408.
- O’Mullane, M. (2021) ‘Developing a theoretical framework for exploring the institutional responses to the Athena SWAN Charter in higher education institutions (HEIs)- A feminist institutionalist perspective,’ Irish Journal of Sociology, Online First https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0791603521995372
- O’Mullane, M. (2021), ‘Maintaining, Challenging or Disrupting the Status Quo? Exploring the Institutional Response to a Gender Equality Programme (Athena SWAN) in one Irish University’, Gender Equality Certification: Lessons Learnt and Future Developments, Centre for Diversity Policy Research and Practice, Oxford Brookes University, 25th February 2021. You can watch the discussion here!
- O’Mullane, M. (2021), ‘Exploring the Institutional Response to a Gender Equality Programme (Athena SWAN) in Irish Higher Education,’ Stream # 40 Gender and Power in Higher Education. Gender, Work and Organization Virtual Conference, Kent, UK. 2nd July.
- O’Mullane, M. (2021) ‘Exploring the discourses of actors working to institutionalise the Athena SWAN Charter in the academy’, as part of the panel ‘The Caring University,’ Sociological Association of Ireland Annual Virtual Conference. 7th May.
- O’Mullane, M. (2020) Developing a Guided Reflection (GR) Tool in a Gender Equality Change Management Project: A Researcher’s Experience. Presented as part of the ISS21 Creative Social Science Methods Seminar Series 2020. https://www.ucc.ie/en/iss21/researchprojects/creativemethodologies/researchasparticipatoryprocessparticipativeandreflectivemethods/
- In November 2019 Dr O’Mullane, on behalf of GendeResearchIreland, invited Professor Uduak Archibong to speak with the UCC community on the topic of Institutionalising Gender Equality. Monica also shared some initial reflections from her own research on Athena SWAN. Further information on the event is available here
- O’Mullane, M. (2019), ‘Reflections on Gender Equality Institutionalisation in Ireland’, as part of an event hosted by my EC funded project GendeResearchIreland, with Professor Udy Archibong (University of Bradford, UK), on Gender Equality Institutionalisation in Higher Education in the UK. University College Cork, Ireland. 15th November 2019
- O’Mullane, M. (2019) ‘Exploring gender equality in Irish higher education- GendeResearchIreland,’ European Commission Marie Skłodowska-Curie Project Monitoring and Networking Event. Education and Learning Panel, 25th and 26th June. REA Offices, Brussels, 25th June 2019.
- O’Mullane, M. (2018) ‘Implementing a European gender equality project in a Slovak university: A personal perspective,’ ISS21 Seminar to the UCC Community, 17th December 2018
Dr Monica O’Mullane with guest speaker Professor Uduak Archibong, Pro Vice-Chancellor [Equality, Diversity & Inclusion] University of Bradford, at the GendeResearchIreland Institutionalising Gender Equality seminar, UCC, 15th November 2019
Dr Monica O’Mullane giving a presentation on GendeResearchIreland to fellow MSCA researchers, EC staff and project evaluators in the Research Executive Agency (REA) building, European Commission, Brussels, June 2019
An important aspect of the GendeResearchIreland MSCA fellowship is to engage with the public in meaningful ways, with a view to sharing knowledge of the project and the MSCA fellowship programme.
These are some public engagement endeavours Dr O’Mullane has pursued on behalf of GendeResearchIreland!
- In 2018 Monica was delighted to re-join the Cork Healthy Cities steering group again! This time I was a representative for UCC, and in that role I represent a voice for gender equality and an ambassador for the MSCA fellowship. Please click here for more information on working with Cork Healthy Cities.
- ‘Why are There More Men in Senior Management?’ (2019) presented as part of the Pint of Science Ireland Festival, Cork, 21st May 2019 (left, pictured during the Pint of Science presentation wearing her Hairy Baby Don’t Mess with Jess tee!)
- In April 2019 Monica met with a group of primary school students from Midleton Educate Together primary school to discuss their idea in applying for the Technovation Girls programme for encouraging young women to become tech entrepreneurs and leaders. Monica discussed with the students their awesome idea for an app addressing gender inequality! She welcomed the group to UCC, here (right) pictured in the UCC Quad during their visit.
- As part of the project’s public engagement, Monica has designed and facilitated workshops with secondary school students in Saint Als Cork city and Ballingeary Secondary School (2019). Additional workshops in more schools are planned for 2021 and 2022. The workshop seeks to openly discuss the benefits of research careers generally, and to share knowledge and expertise on the topic of gender inequality in higher education to secondary school students. The purpose of the workshops is also to illustrate the importance of maximising diversity in research and science. Monica is picture here (left) just before her workshop at the Ballingeary Scoil Mhuire Secondary school, 6th March 2020)
- GendeResearchIreland was showcased at Cork Discovers 2019, along with other ISS21-hosted research projects. Cork Discovers is part of European Researchers’ Night, which ran across 27 countries on the night of Friday, September 27. Further details are available here.
Crucial to the project’s knowledge dissemination strategy is the sharing of key policy learnings with strategic policy actors in the lifetime of the project. Policy Briefs are being produced during the duration of the project, in order to share key lessons from GendeResearchIreland as the Irish State and the EU address gender inequalities on an intersectoral basis. The project’s most recent Policy Brief is available here: