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What makes a university a champion of gender equality? Gemma Irvine outlines how Maynooth University has become a leader in advancing equality, celebrating diversity, and promoting inclusion.

Talent is equally distributed across gender, race and class, but opportunity and access are not. We need to invest in women and those currently under-represented in research and higher education to accelerate progress.

In 2023, Maynooth University was awarded one of the four inaugural EU Award for Gender Equality Champions, along with two other Irish universities (Trinity College Dublin and South East Technological University), and one Swedish university (the Karolinska Institute). But what lies behind our institution, and seemingly also our country, becoming a leader in the crucial task of advancing gender equality?

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Firstly, a supportive national context. Indeed, this recognition as a Gender Equality Champion underscores the comprehensive approach being taken in Ireland, where we are committed to advancing gender equality, celebrating diversity, and promoting inclusion within our universities.

In Ireland, core grant funding and eligibility to apply for research funding is linked to institutional progress in advancing gender equality, as evidenced through the attainment of an Athena Swan Ireland certification and annual progress reporting (quantitative and qualitative).  This is in line with the statutory requirement for Irish higher education institutions (HEIs) to promote gender balance among staff and students, and for the national Higher Education Authority (HEA) to promote the attainment of equality of opportunity in higher education. It also aligns with the obligations of HEIs under the Irish Human Rights and Equality Act (2014) to eliminate discrimination, promote equality of opportunity, and protect the human rights of public sector staff, service users, and all impacted by their policies and plans.

Intersectionality and culture change

Secondly, strong university-wide engagement is key. In Maynooth, we take pride in the vibrant diversity within our community, consisting of approximately 15,000 students and 1,200 staff members. Embracing an inclusive perspective, we have incorporated intersectionality into our framework to provide robust support for gender and race equality, as well as consideration of other legally protected grounds (which total nine in Ireland).

Maynooth University also has a strong focus on organisational culture change, with a dedicated Vice-President for Equality & Diversity who is responsible for leading strategic change in the areas of equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI), as well as the expansion and enhancement of our access and widening participation programmes. We are recognised as a leader in inclusive higher education with a significant emphasis on excellence, opportunity, and impact.

However, these priorities mean very little if they are not put into action. As such, our new Strategic Plan 2023–2028, identifies EDI as a key enabler, and dedicated resources have been allocated to implement our Gender Equality Action Plan 2023-2026. The plan is underpinned by the university’s Equality and Diversity Policy, incorporates national gender equality recommendations, and addresses the four mandatory process-related requirements for Gender Equality Plans and five thematic areas for content for Horizon Europe.

Since our first Gender Equality Plan 2018 - 2022, we have achieved significant milestones. These include: increasing our female Professors to 37% in December 2023, from 28% five years earlier; implementing returners grants for academics and administrative, technical and professional staff taking maternity leave; increasing our breastfeeding/parents rooms; creating an EDI calendar highlighting significant days; providing EDI and Pride lanyards to staff so students can easily identify who they can speak with about EDI issues; establishing student and staff Race Equality Forums; improving our accessibility on campus; being designated as a University of Sanctuary for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants; and hosting the Scholars at Risk European Office.

Equality and inclusion everywhere

Thirdly, we must also look beyond our own campus. At Maynooth University, we recognise the need to invest in women and those currently underrepresented at all levels of the education and research system.

As well as initiatives such as Turn to Teaching, which aims to diversify initial teacher education, we have targeted programmes to address inequalities with access to STEM careers among secondary school students from socially disadvantaged communities (such as the STEM Passport for Inclusion, in collaboration with Microsoft Ireland, Science Foundation Ireland and the Department of Education). Furthermore, we offer dedicated scholarships for Women in STEM at third level, and conduct research aimed at better understanding barriers and identifying potential solutions, including the Motherhood Project (funded by the Irish Research Council), SMILE (co-funded by Erasmus+), and the soon to be launched PROMOTE scheme (funded by the HEA), which aims to keep women in research.

Not resting on our laurels

What’s next? For our university’s EDI efforts, a key focus for the future is continual improvement in our data collection and analysis, enabling an evidence-based approach to policy development and decision making. We conduct an EDI Assurance Process every four years, which involves quantitative and qualitative data collection and analysis and a critical self-reflection to identify areas that still require dedicated actions. This data is available to departments to use for other reporting requirements, such as in Quality Assurance assessments of teaching & learning, research & innovation, and for the Human Resources Strategy for Researchers.

While we have made significant progress since our first gender equality action plan, we still have much to do. Women and girls represent approximately half the population, and thus, half the world’s talent pool. It is imperative that we invest in women, and those significantly under-represented in research and higher education (including black women, people with disabilities, and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds or who identify as LGBT), to accelerate progress and to achieve our ambition ‘to imagine and create better futures for all’.

Ensuring equality, celebrating diversity, and promoting inclusion is not the sole responsibility of those experiencing issues; it is a collective responsibility. It is up to all of us to contribute to culture change, through our words, actions, and attitudes –what we say and don’t say, do and don’t do, and what we tolerate and don’t tolerate. That is why it is crucial to see equality and inclusion as a practice, not an end goal.


Gemma Irvine
Maynooth University

Gemma Irvine is Vice-President for Equality & Diversity at Maynooth University, Ireland. Previously, she was Head of Policy & Strategic Planning in the Higher Education Authority, with responsibility for research policy, teaching & learning enhancement, and international education. She holds a Doctorate in Neuroscience from Otago University, New Zealand.

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