12 November, 2018 - An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, T.D and Minister Mitchell O’Connor launch Gender Equality Action Plan for Higher Education Institutions 2018-2020 and announce the Government of Ireland Senior Academic Talent Initiative

An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, T.D, and  Mary Mitchell O’Connor, Minister of State with special responsibility for Higher Education today (12th Nov 2018) will launch the Gender Action Plan 2018 – 2020: Accelerating Gender Equality in Irish Higher Education Institutions.  The Action Plan is designed to transform the Higher Education sector’s gender equality performance.

The Gender Equality Taskforce was established in November 2017 to build on the work of the HEA National Review of Gender Equality in Irish Higher Education Institutions (2016).   The Taskforce identified significant measures that will further accelerate progress in achieving gender equality in Irish Higher Education Institutions following on from the recommendations of the HEA Expert Group (2016).

 An Taoiseach said, “We know that diversity and broad representation leads to better decision-making and a more productive environment and workforce. The Government is committed to equality between men and women; we have published gender pay gap legislation, we’re bringing in paid parental leave for both parents, we’re making childcare more affordable and raising standards and we’re doing more to promote women to the Judiciary and to State Boards. 

 “Now we want to ensure we have a more effective and inclusive higher education sector. Female role models in positions of authority will encourage and inspire female students to aspire to holding the top jobs in their future workplace. 

 “We can’t rely on others to change the status quo, we can’t just wait for things to change over time. We need accelerators. This action plan is our starting point to accelerate gender equality in Higher Education Institutions. 

 “I would like to pay tribute to Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor’s leadership and dedication on this issue. Without Mary we wouldn’t be here today. I would also like to thank the Taskforce for their work; they have provided us with a roadmap to bring about real change in our third level sector.”

Minister Mitchell O’Connor stated that, ‘Data analysis carried out by the Gender Equality Taskforce in the Action Plan shows that on present trends, if institutions continue with current practices, it could take more than 20 years to achieve 40% gender balance at professorial level. This would be an unacceptable scenario to which a decisive response is now imperative.

The Minister continued, ‘Over the period 2013-2017 there has been a marginal improvement in the university sector of only 1-2% per year on average, from a starting position of 18% female Professors in 2013 to just 24% in 2017 notwithstanding that 51% of lecturer positions are held by females.’

‘This Action Plan that I am launching today provides key recommendations and outlines a comprehensive  strategic approach to help embed and empower a culture of gender equality in the HEIs for all staff, academic and professional, management and support staff across all levels.’

‘Gender breakdown at professor level is a key metric used internationally to compare countries and clearly illustrates the extent of the problem in academia.

International experience shows us that this situation is not unique to Ireland with the rate of improvement at senior levels in HEIs internationally at similar levels. Countries who have made considerable efforts towards gender balance in senior positions still show significant underrepresentation of women at professor level with figures from 2016 showing France at 24%; Germany 23%; and Switzerland 21%.’

Minister Mitchell O’Connor said, “This Government and I are committed to eradicating gender inequality in our HEI’s. I am insisting on institutions setting ambitious targets for 1 year, 3 years and 5 years.   I want 40% of professors within our institutions to be female by 2024.I believe that reflecting the seminal work of the Expert Group Report which is now reinforced by the Action Plan the Higher Education system is committed to that outcome’

‘Our Higher Education Institutions should always be beacons of equality, diversity and inclusion. Ireland has a track record in effecting change on key policy initiatives. We have already shown our commitment to issues of equality and diversity with the same-sex marriage referendum and indeed issues which impact upon women including this years’ referendum to remove the 8th amendment. I know that the targets contained within this report will effect real change.’ 

‘My clear and strong message today is that we are now making a decisive break with the past.  Gender inequality has no place in the Higher Education system. This progress achieved under this Action Plan will be accelerated by a pathbreaking positive action measure- the plan to create new and additional gender-specific senior academic leadership positions in our universities and IOTs.

This far-reaching measure directly responds to the significant underrepresentation of women at professorial level and has a central role to play in evidencing the depth and breadth of female excellence in the Higher Education sector.

The six major actions from the work of the Taskforce are:


  • HEIs showing leadership – Institutional Gender Action Plans
  • Incentivised progress through funding mechanisms
  • Driving sustainable change in the form of a Centre of Excellence for Gender Equality
  • Athena SWAN Charter Ireland
  • Gender-proofing recruitment and promotion procedures and practices
  • Positive action interventions


Gender EqualityTaskforce Membership


Ms Marie O’Connor, Chair

Marie O 'Connor was a financial services partner at PwC in Ireland for 30 years.  She has also been a board member of a number of State and Not for Profit organisations. Marie was the founding Irish Country Lead for 30% Club and continues as a member of its steering committee.  Nominated in 2017 as one of Financial Times FT Heroes for Championing Women in Business, Marie was also honoured by Irish America Magazine as one of its Wall St 50 for 2017 and it’s Inaugural Top 50 Women in 2016


Mr Ryan Shanks

Ryan Shanks is Head of Strategy Practice at Accenture Ireland, delivering technology-enabled strategy and transformation initiatives that position Accenture s clients to take advantage of the latest business opportunities.

Ryan has over 17 years’ experience of successfully delivering large-scale, complex change and transformation programmes across multiple industry and the public sector.


Professor Philip Nolan

Philip Nolan, President of Maynooth University, overseeing all operations from teaching and research to capital development and international initiatives. He is responsible for setting the future direction and goals for the University.


Dr Patricia Mulcahy

Patricia Mulcahy is President of Institute of Technology Carlow. She was recently appointed as the new IBEC South East Regional President. She is also chairperson of the South East Regional Skills Forum.


Ms Sheila Nunan

Sheila Nunan is the General Secretary of the INTO. She has been a member of the Executive of the INTO since 1995 and was INTO President in 2005/2006. Sheila is the current President of ICTU having been elected at the Biennial Delegate Conference in Belfast in July 2017.


The Gender Equality Taskforce terms of reference:

  • Oversee a review of the systems of recruitment and promotion policies and practices in higher education institutions,
  • Review national and international practice and relevant literature including the Review on Gender Equality published by the HEA in 2016 and good practices arising from the Athena Swan process and lessons learnt from unsuccessful applications,
  • Consult with relevant stakeholders,
  • Prepare a prioritised three year action plan.


HEA Expert Group Membership


Professor Pat O’Connor

Professor Paul Walton

Dr Helen Peterson

Mr Ryan Shanks


Notes to Editors:

A link to the report is available here: https://www.education.ie/en/Publications/Policy-Reports/gender-action-plan-2018-2020.pdf

National Gallery Exhibition – Countess Markievicz Portraits and Propaganda:

On the centenary of the Markievicz’s election as the first woman to the British Parliament (1918) and the formation of the First Dáil (1919), if which she was a member, the National Gallery is hosting an exhibition of her paintings and portraits from throughout her life.

Minister Mitchell O’Connor sits below Berni Marky's canvas of Countess Markievicz in the cabinet room and has spoken many times about being wondering, 100 years since suffrage what Countess Markievicz would make of the poor representation of women within our higher education institutions.