Everyone must feel safe and accepted at universities

Her home institution, Trinity College Dublin, is exceptional: the number of female professors is approaching 40 percent. By comparison, the European average is around 26 percent. And the journey of Professor Eileen Drew, former Director of Trinity's Centre for Gender Equality and Leadership, is exceptional too. The progressive atmosphere in Irish education brought her, a former geographer, to the emerging field of gender (then still women’s) studies. She reveals in an exclusive interview what the term gender equality really means, why it is important to talk about safe environment in universities, and why the lack of part-time work is a big social problem.

Read the interview in Czech translation. 

Today, it is no longer enough just to talk about how to attract more women to STEM subjects or to get more of them into leadership positions. According to Eileen Drew, gender equality is a complex societal issue.

“We need to realise that today we are no longer just talking about women and men,” says Professor Drew. “We have to recognize it also means equality for people whose gender is not identified by the binary definition. We have to strive for equal opportunities for all, regardless of their gender, just as we strive for racial, age or religious equality ... No one should be limited or forced on to a certain path just because of how the child was born. Children cannot be brought up believing that there is a limit to what they can do because of certain social norms, pressures, or expectations.”

The journey taken by Trinity College Dublin, prestigious university and Professor Drew’s home institution, in the field of gender equality has been an inspiration. Changes beginning as an effort to gain equality for women in higher education in the early 1990s, last year resulted in the appointment of the first woman Provost in the university’s 430-year history. The number of female professors at the institution has increased to 33%; by 2024 it should be 40% (the European average is around 26%).

Eileen Drew sees this as a great success and the result of thirty years of efforts for fundamental structural change that would not have been possible without the support of women in leadership positions such as former President Mary Robinson, EU and state funding, cooperation with other higher education institutions, and also radical steps such as political pressure for establishing women-only senior posts.

At the same time, all these changes are interconnected with her personal experience, which led her to the newly emerging field of gender studies (then still known as women’s studies) from the study of geography and work as a teacher in the School of Computer Science and Statistics. “As a child, I was always curious and sometimes very irritated by things that someone was constrained from doing. Why can’t I wear pants? Why can’t I ride a bike like my older brother? Why is someone acting anti-Semitic? And I didn’t get an adequate explanation for these things. And that shaped the kind of human rights approach that I think I’ve always had by instinct.”

Your latest book, The Gender-Sensitive University: A Contradiction in Terms?, has a question mark in its title. Don’t you believe that universities are set up as gender-sensitive institutions?
The question mark is intentional. We have tried to be a little provocative so as to make universities aware of what to focus on. We are showing that it is not just about being friendly to and inclusive for women; it is also about being friendly to and inclusive for minorities of all kinds – people with different types of disabilities, different sexual orientations, different gender identities, different ages.

Within universities, at the different levels, you will find that people are homophilic (they tend to associate and bond with similar others – Editorial note). They appoint people who are like them to different positions. An example of this is from someone in an academic Department of Statistics, in New Zealand, where when Russians applied for posts, a Sri Lankan colleague said: “Their English would not be good enough“. So homophily suggests that not only do men want to appoint other men, they want to appoint men“who are like us”. And we don’t want “them”, because they are not like us. It is natural and comfortable. It works the same way at social events, for example. If you are the only woman in the room and you see another woman, you will probably go in her direction because you think you will feel safer. Or you think: I have a friend at that university, so I know their reputation, it’s good. We do things instinctively, but when you enter the recruitment process, that instinct must be left at the door. We must strive to make the institution inclusive for all students and staff, and to create a very safe environment for them.

You mention a safe environment in universities. In recent months, reports of sexual harassment at universities have become more frequent. Should universities add this topic to their strategies?
It is such an important component of inclusivity. We need to ensure a safe environment for everyone at universities and their campuses. If people don’t feel comfortable in schools, and they feel threatened or harassed, then you know that the university is definitely not the healthy environment that it should be.

One of the chapters of the book we talk about, describes the experience at a French university where women often came up against sexual harassment. Complaints were ignored until there was an actual rape on the campus. Authorities responded, that for their safety, safety reasons, women should avoid walking alone on the campus – it was a residential campus – especially after ten in the evening. How is it possible that someone is saying something like that to women today? Universities need to ensure that people are aware that even the use of public space can have very gendered consequences. For example, if you know that the campus is not well lit, its surroundings are not particularly safe, drug dealers operate there… The authorities have to make the campus safe for everyone.

The Covid-19 pandemic served to highlight another aspect of the gender-sensitive university – striking a balance between work and personal life, the possibility of part-time work etc. How do you perceive this?
Part-time work is a topic that has always interested me and I’m still working on it. I believe it is yet to be satisfactorily resolved.

When I embarked upon my PhD in Ireland in the 1980s, part-time work represented a very peripheral economy. I was inspired by my mother who worked part-time, despite having a university degree, as a cashier in a co-operative store. Her salary and conditions did not really coincide with her ability, but it was the only way of reconciling an income with running the home. Certainly, it was a post-war phenomenon in London, England where grew up.

In Ireland, the situation was completely different. There was a marriage bar, so women had to leave the labour market after they got married. So that inspired me to take up my PhD on part-time working. I was trying to find out what obstacles prevent part-time working being a legitimate form of working life. I wasn’t satisfied with the answers I was getting. I met with a lack of interest in women’s work and, in the case of trade unions, to my surprise also with hostility: it was just working for ‚pin money‘. And I wondered who, other than the unions, should help protect the conditions of women at work. After all, it was no choice of theirs to end up in a system like this. And that framed my research at a time when women’s studies had begun to emerge as a subject.

I’m still working on the topic of part-time working in the context of trying to find alternatives to very long working hours. Surveys we have done at the university show that men and women work much more than the usual 35 to 40 hours a week. They take work home, and they work on weekends and in the evenings. And it’s not just about scientists working in laboratories, it’s across all disciplines: time spent writing articles, research proposals, projects, marking scripts, examining dissertations etc. In fact, I venture to say that Covid-19 had a positive impact in this area.

Because the idea that you could only do your job as an academic at your desk was absurd. Yes, teaching is essential, but I think it will also take place more and more at a distance. Moreover, for me, for example, commuting was the biggest waste of time. I drove to and from work every day for three hours. The work itself was not tiring or stressful at all, but the driving was. I have two children and I wanted to spend some time with them. So, during vacations, I took them to the university with me, and while I had a meeting with a doctoral student or discussion with a colleague, my two daughters were sitting in my office doing their own thing. At the time, I was married to an academic at the same university, so sometimes they were in their dad’s office. They somehow grew up on campus.

So I think we need to create different models in which work is distributed more fairly. You should have the opportunity to work part-time or half-time. While working on our project, one of our colleagues negotiated that she would work four days and simply not be available on Friday. Why not? And also: Anybody, regardless their gender, should have the opportunity to stay active in research after parental leave, sick leave, or care leave when taken for care of a parent or a partner. It would be helpful to have a semester off teaching to get their research back on track.

There is also a need for childcare support at conferences. I have taken my children around the world, but I had to find money for it, so it would be really useful if academic conferences automatically provided facilities with childcare. I remember going to a conference on feminist research in Portugal and being able to take my daughters with me, and that was included in the conference costs. My daughters really enjoyed it there on vacation. We just have to learn to look beyond our immediate horizons, testing good things that work in different countries.

In Ireland, and your university is special in this regard, you have succeeded in achieving a greater representation of women in management and professorships. Your goal is at least 40% of women chair professoriate by 2024. What do you think were the key steps leading to this change?

A wonderful International Interdisciplinary Congress in Women’s Studies, hosted here at Trinity College in 1987, was crucial. At that time, I was completing my PhD studies. I signed up for it, and immediately I knew that there was no going back. The conference completely changed everything.

So you did get answers to your questions there?
Yes, and the conference helped me ask further questions. More than a thousand people came to the conference, and it was great that high-profile women, ministers, and politicians were among them. One of the attendees at that conference was Mary Robinson, who three years later became Irish President (the first woman to hold this office – Editorial note), and after that the Chancellor of our university. Also there was Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, who later became the EU Commissioner for Science, Research and Innovation and helped promote gender equality in research funding. The congress sparked off the setting up of centres for women’s studies in the main Irish universities. Our Centre was set up around 1990. We established a master’s programme in women’s, now gender, studies, which is still going strong today, after 30 years.

But the major breakthrough was in 2011, when Trinity shifted to an emphasis on governance and structural barriers to gender equality. That’s when we started the INTEGER project, which, in addition to wonderful partnerships in France, Lithuania and Germany, provided us with the resources to get things moving. Over the next five years, we created an INTEGER Gender Equality Plan, divided into several quadrants. We had to think about management and leadership, work-life balance, policies and practices, and career progression. We wanted to know where there was a gender balance or imbalance at the university in terms of who was running things. We looked at the composition of committees, the governance structures, the Board and Council, the university officers.

What was the response from management? Did you encounter negative reactions? After all, no Irish university had a woman rector at that time…
In 2011, we had a new male rector (Provost), who was a mechanical engineer. And he appointed a lot of women as college officers and two women vice-provosts.

On your advice?
He was already aware of the issue of gender equality and knew  what needed to be done. He had worked at the university as a vice-provost for the previous five years (Science Foundation Ireland funded a new centre for the support of women in science and technology, WiSER, at Trinity College). So when it came to the Provost election, Caroline Roughneen the former Director of the WiSER Centre, and I, as the PIs of the INTEGER project, interviewed all the candidates and asked what they were going to do to ensure gender equality. At that time, there was just one woman candidate who was pretty much on board. Then there were other candidates who thought that the university should apply the American model, put some money into the system to create some women professorships, and then it would work out by itself. But Patrick Prendergast, who became Provost, got a much drilling from us, because we knew he had taken the impressive Harvard implicit association test, which showed him that, like the rest of us, we are all biased!

He had attended several WiSER events and was a bit more tuned-in than the other candidates. Also sheer pragmatism dictated that he appoint the best people into the positions that had to be allocated. During his term of ten years in the office (ending last year, in 2021), he was very willing and open to positive suggestions. He agreed, for example, that we would have a promotional video with him, and the vice-provost, talking about gender equality and diversity at the university, which we paid for from INTEGER funds. Thanks to the project, we also organised training to address unconscious bias.

What was the reaction to this particular topic? It was much-discussed at the time.
And it still remains important. I was thinking about how to actually force the institution to undergo change for a better service and try to apply this in a gender agenda. I came to the conclusion that we had to start with top-level positions. In Ireland, unconscious bias awareness training was a new topic at the time, but the Provost was already aware of it and agreed we should organize it. I suggested we start with the management, and he said, "Okay, go ahead, it’s fine."

We invited an academic chemist from York University, where they were leading the way in such training at the time. We sat down with the deans of the faculties, the chief financial officer, the treasurer of the university and others who were predominantly male (it was 2012-ish), and we had half an hour allocated for it. They looked absolutely baffled or bored at the beginning and the Provost sat there watching their reactions. When they learned what was going on in York University and how such training could be transformative, they were animated, became interested in things, got involved, and finally came to appreciate it. Then we held other events for university fellows and members of junior and senior promotion boards. Then we got money for“train the trainers” in all Irish universities. Today, we have moved into another phase. I’m working with Lund University, Sweden, and LERU, the League of European Research Universities, on unconscious bias observer training for people who would be monitoring the recruitment process for academics to ensure that competitions are open and transparent and to stop what might be some not very good practices. Next week in Zurich we will talk about how to transfer this beyond LERU Universities.

What is important when drawing up a plan?
First to diagnose what’s wrong. We look at gender-disaggregated data, statistics, distributions, where there are obstacles, and we try to figure out what to do with this. For example, you ask: Why aren't there enough women in leadership? Are women afraid of power, and do they not want to be leaders, as some claim? That’s just ridiculous. We have seen it on the world stage that women leaders can come to make an excellent impact, for example in New Zealand or the Nordic countries. If they were truly afraid of leadership or the powers entrusted to them, they would not become prime ministers, presidents or commissioners. It’s the same with universities.

One of the political decisions to ensure gender equality, the creation of women-only senior posts, has opened a discussion about quality erosion as a negative effect of affirmative action, and about what to do when, there are simply not enough high-quality women candidates.

I’m sorry, that’s not acceptable. Something similar happened at the Department of English at our university. There was not one woman on the shortlist for the appointment of a professor. The Provost, the man I have talked about, got upset and asked: How is that even possible? There is something wrong here. And since then, it has been the rule that if such a gender imbalanced shortlist was submitted, the whole recruitment process should start again.

In a commentary on the election of your first woman Provost, your colleague Pat O’Connor wrote that women in university management are certainly symbolically important. But she also asked if this would really make any difference when, as she stated, universities are still designed by men and are thus better suited to men. What do you think about this?
I think Pat also believes in change, but at the same time we know that a few women in management is not enough. Anything under a 40/60 mix won’t change things. It is believed that the critical mass is 30 percent. We have now reached slightly above: 33 percent of our full grade professors are women, and it is changing every year. Our target is 40 percent by 2024. But at the same time, we also know that getting women into certain positions is not enough in itself. They have to become involved in the process of institutional transformation. I’m quite optimistic that our new Provost will be the kind to move that change forward. We have learned that you have to keep pushing, to think how to protect our gains and keep improving. That was what brought us into the Athena Swan Charter. 

You extended this British scheme to Ireland. Where do you see its main benefits?

Mainly in that it is oriented towards the university as a whole. The INTEGER project was focused on STEM subjects, now it’s a much more comprehensive view. We ask what the structure of our teams is like. Not only in terms of the distribution of men and women – there should also be a balanced mix of senior and junior researchers, undergraduate and postgraduate students and postdocs. So at the moment we have to look at the university as a community in which gender equality has to be driven, not just parts, such as the number of women in the professoriate, etc. And it has created an impact. In 2015, we won a bronze award at institutional level with three STEM schools. By the year 2022, we have 24 university schools eligible for Athena Swan, and 15 of those have already gained Athena Swan bronze awards.

Do you have to prove yourself with specific cases and data? A recent UNESCO and THE study has shown that schools are ready to declare measures to promote gender equality, but that particular steps are missing.

Yes, you have to prove yourself with practical steps. By next year, Trinity will be required to apply for a silver Athena SWAN award, and that will be even more challenging. Because you have to show an impact on your work, success rates in recruitment and promotion, gender representation on committees, retention of students and diversity among them, and so on. Now, there is a shortage of men in social work, for example. We ask where the men are in nursing and midwifery, and we wonder why we are not attracting them. So we need to make these disciplines more attractive to men, not just women, because it is men who are under-represented now. So it’s a really exciting challenge, and you see the direct impact of what you’ve been striving for, that you have created something that seriously addresses gender inequality now. Some have claimed that we have created a“monster”.

A monster? In what sense?
In the sense that you cannot roll it back, you cannot say we have got there, reached that goal. The whole ethos of Athena Swan is that it has three levels, and we are still at the lowest, bronze. I don’t think there is any university, even in the whole of the UK, that has already got a gold award. It shows you that perfection is still far away.

Athena Swan is criticised for not keeping up with the times, not tackling current issues. What do you think?
One of the early criticisms was that it addressed only the careers of women. Another criticism was that it ignored the whole transgender debate and the difficulties of this group of people. Now it is about equality for all genders. Athena Swan is now also talking about so-called intersectionality. You have to report a lot more things; the updated application process requires you to look at, for example, age, ethnicity, simply what the overall composition of the people at the university is, and that encapsulates transgender too.

Another area that I think is still missing here, is sexual harassment and sexual violence. We know that it is happening at all universities, and I think that in some form it will probably appear in the revised charter, because it is a very important part of inclusiveness. In general, I think that Athena Swan is a very good mechanism. It is tried and tested, and we can see its results in practice.

Eastern European countries are partners in your projects. Would Athena Swan’s principles be incorporated into their strategies?
Probably not. In one article I read that many Central and Eastern European countries still see gender and the whole gender agenda as a kind of American import; they perceive it as something foreign or alien. At one of our site visits, at the University of Šiauliai in Lithuania, we learned about this absolute hostility towards challenging gender binaries and that changing aspects of identity was seen as some kind of conspiracy by them. Reactions can be even more hostile, because gender equality is seen as something they do not need, because they think they already have equality there, and if gender inequality persists, it is a natural development. So I think it may be too early from a political point of view, and I’m a little sad about it.

Just look at what is happening in Hungary. And to a lesser extent in Poland. The closure of the Central European University in Budapest, the abolition of gender studies at Hungarian universities – this really is a step backwards. By the way, when we held a conference on gender equality in higher education in 2018, we sent a petition to President Orbán with several hundred signatures from our conference. And we actually got a reply. Polite, but it was just like: we are not impeding anything. This signals that there might be a problem. Also, the Gender Equality Plan, which is now required by the EU, has, I would say, hit many institutions like a bombshell; even some LERU institutions are reluctant. I think Athena Swan might get the same response, unfortunately. It is early days.

What do you say to the argument that we now have more serious problems than talking about low representation of transgender people?
Oh, this debate, yes. In times of war, in times of Covid, we must put the gender issue aside. However, gender equality is a cross-cutting issue and does not diminish the importance of other issues. After all, thanks to it, management, teaching, and research will be at a higher level. In one of my articles, I looked at the top 10 British universities (also among the world’s best) in QS world rankings – Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, Edinburgh and the like. I also looked at whether they had Athena Swan. Everyone had, and about a third of them had the second, silver level. So there is a message there: we should not take a step back, because gender equality does not detract from anyone. It is not about eroding excellence; it is about helping to reach it and achieve it.

What is most important in gender equality today?
We just have to learn to consider different alternatives. There is no one-size-fits-all option that suits everyone. It is a combination, as I said, testing of good things that work in different countries. That’s what Athena Swan is about – the sharing of good experience. If someone has good experience in providing something that can help, we’ve introduced it and it works. There will always be universities that are better than you at certain things, and it’s good to be inspired by that. For me, complete gender equality means that people didn’t choose something because they were forced to do it but because they wanted to do it, to become the people they want to be.