Opening Statement from Minister Harris to the Joint Committee on Gender Equality
I thank the Chair and members for the invitation to join them today to discuss the recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly on Gender Equality.
Before we begin, I’d like to that this opportunity to commend the work of the Citizen’s Assembly on Gender Equality which culminated in the publication of a report containing forty-five recommendations across eight themes. It was a significant moment in the long history of advocacy and public discourse around how we treat and value women and girls in this country.
I was particularly heartened to see the inclusive parameters which the Assembly adopted for its work, for example by recognising violence against women as a gender justice issue.
As members know I have direct experience myself as Minister for Health with the impact of Citizen Assembly reports and the role of Oireachtas Committees to drive forward reforms. It’s a process that served us well in how this country dealt with one of the most divisive issues in the country – reproductive rights and healthcare.
I know it will serve us well as we push forward to achieve real and substantial gender equality.
The Citizens Assembly report provides us with a clear and consensual roadmap for tackling gender equality issues in areas such as gender discrimination, work life balance and stereotypes in education.
I want to say at the outset and be very clear on this. Gender inequality is pervasive across society and we must not silo or reduce our aims to achieve gender justice to categories or narrow perspectives without a holistic, whole of government, whole of population approach.
While the Assembly’s recommendations cut across many policy areas and highlight the need for a collective Government response, I am here today to share with you the leadership of my Department and our role to advance equality.
I understand you have requested that this session primarily focus on recommendations 26 to 31 regarding “Norms & Stereotypes and Education”. As they are interrelated I will also address recommendations 28, 29, 30 as my Department is also progressing work in this area.
While my Department has policy responsibility for third level, we need to have an honest conversation here about how gender stereotypes and issues of equality roll through the entire education system. We need to link in across the three systems – primary secondary and third.
[There’s little point I believe in talking about consent at third level for example, if we do not have a comprehensive sexual education curriculum at primary and secondary level. This unfortunately is one of the key recommendations of the former Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment which was has not been progressed.]
[If we wait until our young people are 18 and entering third level to educate them on consent, in many cases the damage is done or indeed it is more difficult to undo perceived norms.]
In any event, I understand that a separate invite has issued to Minister Foley and I look forward to working with her and her Department on any shared recommendations arising from the Committee’s Report.
A long held aim of education policy has been to ensure that everybody is afforded the opportunity to develop to their full potential. Traditional gender norms and stereotypes can lead to adverse outcomes in terms of perpetuating gender inequality which can inhibit people from reaching their full potential and lead to less than desired outcomes.
In the education sector, this can manifest itself in terms of subject choices in the school system which in turn can influence course choices at third level and ultimately determine future career paths.
The higher and further education sector can be an engine for economic growth and an instrument to promote diversity and enhance social cohesion. I want to ensure that we create opportunities and support people to engage in education and training at every stage of their lives ‑ to learn, upskill, reskill and grow.
I propose now to take you through each of the relevant recommendations and update you about my Department’s initiatives and work.
All levels of the education system from pre-school to third level, led by the relevant Government Department, should:
(a) Ensure that initial education and continuing professional development for staff includes modules promoting gender awareness and gender-sensitive teaching methods.
(b) Monitor policies and practices – including school inspection and whole school evaluation – through the lens of gender equality and report regularly on trends and outcomes by gender.
I’d like to share with you some of our activities in relation to gender awareness and monitoring of practices and policies in third level education.
National Review of Gender Equality
On 15 March 2022, I announced the second National Review of Gender Equality, which is being carried out by an expert group, on behalf of the Higher Education Authority (HEA). This review will assess progress since the first review of its kind in 2016 and make recommendations to ensure that gender equality is amplified in higher education institutions.
The expert group is expected to make five to ten high-level recommendations as to how, in their view, higher education institutions might enhance their equality policies and their implementation to support gender equality. I expect to be in a position to publish this report towards the end of 2022.
Gender Action Plan for higher education
Progress is continuing on the range of indicators included in the Gender Action Plan for higher education:
- All HEIs have institutional gender action plans and submit annual progress updates to the HEA.
- The HEA continues to publish the Higher Education Institutional Staff Profiles by Gender on an annual basis.
- New and additional gender-specific posts under the Senior Academic Leadership Initiative (SALI) was launched in 2019. To date, 20 posts at senior academic level were awarded to Irish HEIs under the first cycle of the initiative and 10 posts were awarded under the second cycle of the initiative.
- Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) that currently hold Athena Swan Ireland awards are guided in their applications to provide information on training that is related to equality and diversity, management, leadership, and/or other opportunities linked to career progression. 15 additional awards were announced on March 31. This brings the total number of awards up to 98; 20 HEIs have achieved a Bronze award and 78 departmental awards have been made to date.
- Attainment of Athena SWAN awards is linked to eligibility for research funding from the Environmental Protection Agency, Health Research Board, Irish Research Council, and Science Foundation Ireland.
So our senior research academic posts have increased by 50% from 2019 to 2020. And in the research sector, the Female Research Applicant Success Rate has grown from 26% in 2019 to 31% in 2020.
Just to be clear in relation to accountability, in addition to the submission of progress updates, the Governing Authority of each higher education institution (HEI) must submit a statement to the HEA confirming that the Institution has an action plan in place and that this action plan is being implemented as part of its Annual Governance Statements. All HEIs are required to submit an Annual Governance Statement and Statement of Internal Control to the HEA, covering a comprehensive list of governance requirements, with non-compliance in any matter to be identified within the statement.
Gender Equality Enhancement Fund
The HEA has awarded funding of over €500k under the Gender Equality Enhancement Fund in 2020/21 to advance gender equality initiatives in Irish higher education.
Awards were made across three areas regarding: research on or advancing gender quality initiatives in Ireland; training programmes specifically addressing gender equality; and Athena SWAN capacity-building activities.
Projects were funded across several areas including the promotion of female role models in the physical sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics (pSTEM), development and implementation of gender identity, expression and diversity training for staff in Irish HEIs, establishment of networks to support female participation in computer science, resources to support the academic advancement of mid-career female staff, provision of gender equality-based leadership training to future leaders, development of resources to assist departments in modelling gender-disaggregated data against national trends, embedding equality, diversity and inclusion into the curriculum, teaching and learning and teacher education, an investigation of how gender stereotypes contribute to gender inequality, support for the increased visibility and participation of women economists in public discourse, and research into the impact of menopause on the careers of women in Irish higher education.
In view of the gendered impact on women, reform the Third Level Grants Scheme to ensure that those accessing part-time courses are eligible to apply for a grant.
Address the specific needs of lone parents to incentivise and support them in accessing work or education, including provision of child and after-school care.
When I took up this role, one of the first things I did was commission a review of the SUSI Grant Scheme. I was delighted to bring the final report on the review to Government this week and we launched it yesterday.
Already as a result of the Review, I have already made some early progress in addressing some of the Review's recommendations around the cost of living.
However, we can’t hide away from the fact that the cost of living for students has increased as it has for us all. And as women comprise the majority of lone parents, we must ensure that there is access to the supports they need if they wish to enter or re-enter education.
For the first time in over a decade there will be significant changes to the rates and eligibility for students accessing the Student Grant Scheme. There will be an increase to all student grant maintenance payments of €200 per year, there will be an increase in the income threshold to qualify for the stand rate of student grant by €1,000, and the non- adjacent rate of grant will be available to qualifying students who live 30km or more from college. This will apply to students from this September.
However, I am planning to do more. And particularly around the availability of flexible and blended learning which I will really benefit women and lone parents.
I have established an implementation group to look at the issue of future funding of our higher institutions, grant supports and reform. The review of the Student grant Scheme contains a recommendation to extend supports for more flexible forms of learning which will have a considerable impact on access to education for lone parents. This recommendation will be considered as part of the work of this new implementation group (chaired by Professors Anne Looney and Tom Collins).
National Plan for Equity of Access
Very shortly I will be bringing to Government our new National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education. I’m really excited about this plan actually as I think it’s going to make an impact where we need it most.
Not only will students be supported to enter third level, they will also be supported to succeed and come out the other side.
The plan is to ensure that the student body entering into, participating in and completing higher education at all levels reflects the diversity and social mix of Ireland's population.
The Plan identifies the target groups that are currently under-represented in higher education. These include entrants from socio-economic groups that have low participation in higher education, Irish Travellers, students with disabilities, first time mature student entrants, part-time/flexible learners and further education award holders.
Lone parents and ethnic minorities are also included in this grouping as a sub-group.
Following a review of the supports and barriers for lone parents in accessing higher education in 2017, a number of additional supports were put in place to support lone parents. These include: an additional €1 million of ring-fenced core funding under the Student Assistance Fund to support part-time students who are lone parents or members of the other access target groups; and bursaries of up to €5,000 per annum to support target groups including lone parents and teen parents.
Provide appropriate State funding and resources for:
(a) Strengthening existing programmes to encourage women into male-dominated careers (e.g. STEM, Science Technology Engineering and Maths) and including apprenticeships.
(b) Developing initiatives to encourage men into female-dominated careers (e.g. caring professions).
One of the most impressive groups I have encountered since I took up this role was the WITS group – Women in Technology and Stem. They have informed me on the various barriers facing young women entering STEM careers and the steps we need to take to fix the leaky pipeline of women in working in STEM industries.
I also want to tell you about some of the initiatives we have funded directly to ensure more women enter male-dominated careers.
Existing programmes to encourage women into male-dominated careers include Springboard+ and Human Capital Initiative (HCI) Pillar 1.
Springboard+ complements the core State-funded education and training system and provides free and subsidised upskilling and reskilling higher education opportunities in areas of identified skills need.
Since early 2017, Springboard courses have been made available for free to returners (formerly referred to as Homemakers). Employed people participating on courses at levels 7 and above in the NFQ contribute 10% of the course cost, with the remainder being funded by the Government.
Almost 64% of course places are in STEM-related areas, for example new and emerging technologies such as Cybersecurity, and Virtual Reality.
Action Plan for Apprenticeship
The Action Plan for Apprenticeship 2021 – 2025 was launched in April 2021. The plan includes a target of 10,000 new apprentice registrations per annum across the further and higher education sectors by 2025.
Some good news to share with the Committee is that the number of women registered as apprentices has grown from 665 at end 2019 to 1,482 in March 2022.
One of the five unambiguous objectives in this plan is ‘Apprenticeship for all’, meaning that the profile of the apprenticeship population will more closely reflect the profile of the general population.
The Action Plan includes the broadening of the existing bursary for employers of female craft apprentices to deliver a ’gender equity bursary’ providing a bursary for employers of apprentices from a minority gender in apprenticeships where there is over 80% representation of a single gender.
Under the Action Plan, an Equity of Access Committee is being established and will develop additional targeted actions to support the diversification of the apprentice population so that it more strongly reflects the general population.
Options such as increased flexibility in the delivery of apprenticeships to facilitate part time employment or periods of leave will be investigated in the delivery of an inclusive apprenticeship delivery structure. These actions align with the National Strategy for Women and Girls which includes an action (action 1.11) to increase female participation in apprenticeships.
Eliminate tolerance in our society of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence by developing and implementing awareness, prevention and education campaigns which may include children of an appropriate age on:
(a) The impact and harm caused by domestic, sexual and gender-based violence.
(b) Supports available to victims/survivors.
The Framework for Consent in Higher Education Institutions was launched in April 2019. It aims to ensure the creation of an institutional campus culture which is safe, respectful and supportive for students and staff.
The Framework outlines a number of aims for higher education institutions, students, staff and for the Higher Education Authority (HEA) and/or DFHERIS to ensure that relevant supporting structures and processes are in place to address the issues of sexual harassment and violence on campuses.
There are 15 Framework outcomes, which are grouped thematically under the headings looking at areas such as institutional culture, institutional processes for the recording of incidents, lines of responsibility and targeted initiatives.
Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) published individual action plans on tackling sexual violence and harassment, aligned with the Framework in 2021. As part of monitoring requirements, HEIs are required to report to the HEA annually on progress in implementing the Framework for Consent.
To assist institutions with implementation of the Framework, funding of over €400,000 has been allocated to a number of initiatives since its launch.
In addition, the HEA has allocated funding of over €500,000 towards consent workshops, the development of the anonymous report and support tool, and the UCC Bystander intervention programme.
My Department is also partnering with the Department of Justice and the NUIG Active Consent* programme in the roll-out of an integrated, publicly available, online learning and resource hub on sexual consent awareness and learning.
I launched the Online Consent Hub on sexual consent with my colleague Minister McEntee in January. The online consent hub provides, for the first time, a publicly-available, educational resource on sexual consent for young people, their families, and educators who work with them. This hub will be a really important resource and tool for students and wider society. It will play a key part in our overall goal to build a meaningful culture of consent in our campuses, further education settings and in our communities across Ireland.
In January of this year I launched the reports of the student and staff surveys on sexual violence and harassment in higher education. I want to take this opportunity to thank students and staff across the country who took the time to engage with this survey and share their experiences with us. A total of 11,417 responses were analysed (7,901 students and 3,516 staff) and inform the findings.
The survey findings point to some positive developments in the higher education institutions that can be built upon in areas such as awareness raising and education. But there are also some deeply troubling findings, such as the levels of sexual harassment experienced by staff and students that responded to the survey and particularly the female students that reported that they had experienced sexual violence.
An Expert Advisory Group on Ending Sexual Violence and Harassment chaired by the HEA has reviewed the survey reports and has proposed a number of actions, for example around consent classes and the availability of investigators. These recommendations have been shared with the Department of Justice for inclusion in the Third National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence.
I will continue to lead the way on institutional change, championing the changes required to achieve a cultural norm where bullying and sexual harassment are not tolerated.
Ensure data gathering on key gender equality issues (including care), regular publication of such data and remedial action where necessary.
Finally, I just want to mention a really important piece of data gathering within the higher education sector.
National Gender Equality Dashboard for Higher Education Institutions
On 8 March 2021, I launched the National Gender Equality Dashboard for Higher Education Institutions. Based on published Higher Education Institutional Staff Profiles by Gender from the HEA.
This dashboard developed by Maynooth University provides an interactive and comparative visualisation of key staff data and gender profile, from Irish higher education institutions (HEIs). The National Gender Equality Dashboard for HEIs, which will be updated annually, offers a valuable baseline (2017-2019), from which progress on gender equality can be visualized and measured across all grades of staff in the Universities, Colleges, and Institutes of Technology.
It is essential we continue to improve data collection so we can provide the necessary evidence to inform policy and measure progress.
The Centre of Excellence in the HEA monitors HEI performance through the Strategic Dialogue process. The Centre is responsible for analysing and publishing annual Higher Education Institutional Staff Profiles by Gender. Ambitious targets for the proportion of academic and professional, management and support staff of each gender to be in senior positions are agreed with the HEA and monitored annually through the Strategic Dialogue process. Each HEI will be held accountable for achieving their targets and performance will be incentivised through funding incentives or consequences as appropriate, to ensure progress is constant and considerable.
That is a brief synopsis of what my Department and sector is advancing to achieve the goal of gender equality. We are always looking to do more. I look forward to discussing the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality with the Committee today. I welcome your feedback, ideas and lived experience on how gender justice can be usefully achieved within further and higher education and progressed more broadly across society.