The School of Engineering at the University of Galway has recently received an Athena Swan Silver Award in recognition of its efforts in progressing gender equality.

The Athena Swan Ireland charter provides a framework for progressing equality in higher education and research that is unique to Ireland. It aims to support higher education institutions, academic departments, and professional units in impactful and sustainable gender equality work and to build capacity for evidence-based equality work across the equality grounds enshrined in Irish legislation. 

Some members of the University of Galway School of Engineering Athena Swan self-assessment team.

Important milestone

Within the Republic of Ireland, this is the first silver award for an engineering school and only the second Silver Departmental Award (a number of higher education institutions and departments have already achieved bronze awards). This is an important milestone in the school’s efforts and is the outcome of years of effort and the development of a range of initiatives to support career development for women in the School of Engineering.

Importantly, a silver award explicitly recognises commitment to career development for all grades of staff – academic, technical officers and professional services. The school has identified a number of challenges, of which two in particular stand out: (i) low numbers of female engineering students; and (ii) the need for systemic change in order to overcome barriers to female career advancement in HEIs. Low participation of women in engineering education is a long-standing issue – in terms of staff and students – in Ireland and elsewhere.

For example, the 2020/21 average is 21.8% female academic staff1 (HESA, UK) and 24.8% female students at undergraduate level2 (HEA). While low relative to non-STEM disciplines, nationally the proportion of female students has shown a continued increasing trend over the past few years. It is hoped that this feed-in to the pipeline will translate to an increased percentage of female academic and technical support staff in the coming years, as well as more female engineers in society in general.

At the time of application, the School of Engineering at the University of Galway comprised 32% female staff (20.8% academic staff), and 23% female students. This had grown from 20.1% for academic staff and 18.7% for students since 2017/18, with the percentage of female students at entry surpassing the national average female enrolment since 2019/20.

‘Women in engineering’ events

Our increased female student population has been achieved through a number of targeted initiatives aimed at attracting more females to study engineering. These initiatives were defined in a previous Athena Swan action plan and included several social media campaigns with videos featuring the work of female graduates and researchers; scholarships for female students at different stages of their studies; and ‘women in engineering’ events during our university ‘open days’.

Concerted efforts were made to give engineering talks in female-only secondary schools and to ensure that women were represented in promotional materials and events. Female participation was also high in outreach activities designed for primary school students.

Furthermore, we have a very active WiSTEM society, founded by a graduate student member of our self-assessment team, which provides continuing support for female students during their studies, including mentoring, scholarships, paid internships and career talks.

Given our increased female student numbers, it is clear that such outreach and support is very effective and important, and we are conscious that our efforts need to continue to ensure that future generations of female students are informed about the engineering profession and that they see it as an attractive career path.

In order to address career development for female staff in the school, a number of supports have been found to be beneficial. For example, targeted research funding schemes for women returning from maternity or other caring leave can be beneficial in providing a stimulus for ‘restarting’ research or other academic activity that may have been interrupted.

Expanded and more inclusive criteria for promotion have also helped to drive a significant increase in the percentage of female academic staff at senior levels within the school. This includes, eg transparency and accounting for family and other documented leave in assessing output relative to opportunity within the university.

In addition, the school has successfully engaged in the recruitment of female professorial staff through the HEA’s Senior Academic Leadership Initiative (SALI) scheme.

Other factors that led to the success of our application included ongoing advice and feedback from the Office of the Vice President for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) and our College Vice-Dean for EDI; support in sourcing staff data from human resources; and a high level of engagement from our colleagues in the School of Engineering who showed a positive attitude and great enthusiasm towards gender equality in all consultative processes.

Finally, the self-assessment team worked together cohesively and with commitment throughout the application process, and we will continue to work to address remaining issues identified in our new action plan so that we can maintain and grow our progress towards gender equality in engineering education.

Authors: Maeve Duffy is a senior lecturer in electrical and electronic engineering at the University of Galway. She is director of EDI in the School of Engineering and co-chair of the school's Athena Swan self-assessment team. Edward Jones is a professor in electrical and electronic engineering at the University of Galway. He is head of the School of Engineering and co-chair of the school's Athena Swan self-assessment team.