Leading for change: bringing gender equality to the fore

Leading for change: bringing gender equality to the fore

Two powerful women are leading the way toward gender equality at HEAnet, Ireland’s national education and research network

Kerrie Power, chief executive of HEAnet, and Professor Anne Scott, recently appointed chairperson of the HEAnet board of directors, are two strong female voices leading for change across the higher-education sector.

HEAnet is Ireland’s national education and research network, established in 1983 by the Irish universities with the support of the Higher Education Authority. Today, the network provides internet connectivity and IT services for all Irish universities, institutes of technology and other higher education institutions (HEIs), along with research organisations and all primary and post-primary schools across Ireland. That’s over 1 million students, staff and researchers relying on the HEAnet network each day.

In June 2017, HEAnet appointed Kerrie Power as its new chief executive. Kerrie brings with her over 15 years of experience of leadership in the field of tech, including roles at Nordeus Games, YouPass Technologies and other international companies.

Speaking with The Sunday Business Post, Power said “the biggest challenge for us is demand” when asked about her experiences at HEAnet over the last year. “There’s been a huge increase in the demand for high-volume broadband connectivity. At home, students that have it tend to take it for granted - it’s just there, and they naturally expect it in school too.”

While education has modernised a great deal in recent years (how many readers had interactive whiteboards in their classroom when they were in school?), there is always room for improvement.

“One of the things I’ve found is that technology in education hasn’t really moved forward anywhere in the world. If you were to go to a hospital ten years ago for a minor surgery, you’d probably be in the hospital in recovery for a few days afterwards, but now it’s probably keyhole and you’ll be in and out in an afternoon. But in a classroom, the experience you would have had ten years ago, compared to the experience you’d have today, is not really very different.”

Modernisation is part of HEAnet’s mission, helping to make education more accessible and more sophisticated. “Technology can improve how we educate our population,” Power said. “People learn at different levels and paces, and there are a lot of skill-sets out there that aren’t necessarily academic. Technology can help drive a new way to get the very best out of people and get the best out of Ireland.”

Dynamic

Coming from some of the world’s biggest and most influential technology companies, Power has absorbed their culture of dynamic change, as well as the current drive among tech multinationals to address a lack of diversity among their staff. While acknowledging that in tech, overall, the gender balance isn’t there yet, Power is hopeful that things are improving. “I count myself as very lucky to have had great female mentors throughout my career.”

Today, as chief executive of HEAnet, she tries to make their workforce as diverse as possible and is happy to report a rise in the number of women applying for jobs in the first place. “Within the last two months we’ve hired two female technologists into very high-profile roles here. It’s a good indication that the talent is out there. We hired the very best people, and in both cases they just happened to be female.”

Professor Anne Scott, vice-president for equality and diversity, NUI Galway Pic: Michael Dillon

HEAnet is also proactive in getting girls interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects through their involvement with Teen Turn, a project which works to change how girls identify with careers in technology, under the tagline ‘Turning Teens Toward Tech’. With Teen Turn, girls receive summer work placements with prominent technology companies, helping to inspire and engage them, and to defeat stereotypes around tech as a typically ‘male’ industry.

Praising Teen Turn as well as CoderDojo, the volunteer-led community which teaches coding to young people, for their work getting children and young adults – and, in particular, girls - involved in technology, Power said: “Gamification of education has made a real difference, by making things fun and accessible, and breaking down the bias around technology being a ‘male’ thing. More and more, we’re seeing female graduates coming through who are exciting candidates for jobs. That’s a reflection of how the industry is changing.”

Broader cultural shifts have played a role as well. Not long ago, getting into computers was often depicted as a niche activity for (typically male) geeks. Today, by contrast, technology is ubiquitous; it follows that the next generation of students will want to understand in detail how it works.

Power commented on this rise in technological literacy: “Technology isn’t just for gaming or sending emails any more. It’s for everything, and it’s around everyone from the time they’re born. Girls and boys are seeing the benefits of technology, and that’s helping to break down barriers in terms of gender. Technology is no longer a scary thing. People are becoming more interested in how it works.”

Diversity

In July of this year, HEAnet announced another new appointment: that of Professor Anne Scott, as chairperson of their board of directors. Professor Scott arrived with an extensive track record of promoting and addressing gender balance in education.

Currently the vice-president for equality and diversity at the National University of Ireland, Galway, she worked previously as executive dean of the Faculty of Education, Health and Community at Liverpool John Moores University, and at Dublin City University, initially as a professor and head of school and then as deputy president and registrar, for a total of 14 years.

Early on in her career, Professor Scott relied on hard work and her innate self-assuredness to overcome any prejudice against women in academia.

She explained: “Maybe I wasn’t properly socialised as a woman, but I never really came across this until fairly late in my career. I grew up in a single-parent family, and I was raised by my father, because my mother died when we were very young. I think I unconsciously absorbed the notion that if you worked hard enough you could do anything that you wanted, and that there were no perceived barriers that came with being a girl . . . I would say that in fact I didn’t really reach what is called the glass ceiling until I had spent significant time as deputy president and registrar in DCU and began to apply for university presidencies.”

Drawing on her own experiences, as well as interviews with the staff at NUI Galway, Professor Scott identified the issues preventing women from putting themselves forward for positions of leadership.

“There are a number of things we know, for example that women are less likely to put themselves forward even for promotion, let alone for significant leadership roles, and tend to be extremely self-critical about their experience, their skill set and/or their ability to do the job. But they will also tend to respond better if they are encouraged to go forward . . .

“We’ve seen this ourselves at NUI Galway, where there had been a dearth of women applying for senior lecturer or for promotion, or for membership of the governing body. When the women’s university network began to campaign to encourage people to apply for these positions, it was a resounding success.”

This is why issues like visibility of role models, mentorship and encouragement are so important: years of imbalance have led women to doubt themselves, to avoid risk and to keep a low profile.

Professor Scott said: “I think that’s one of the important things: women like to be encouraged, while men will just assume it looks like an interesting job and that they’re capable of doing at least 50 per cent of it. Women will believe that they must be able to do 100 per cent of the job, and even then they might be reluctant to put themselves forward unless they’re encouraged. Encouragement has played a role in my personal experience – when I went for the deputy president role at DCU, I myself was encouraged to go for it by my colleagues, otherwise I wouldn’t have considered it.”

Upon her arrival at NUI Galway, Professor Scott was faced with the complicated task of unravelling some deep-rooted, if unconscious, institutional biases, which had led to a number of gender-discrimination cases being taken against the university.

Professor Scott acted on 24 recommendations made by NUI Galway’s Gender Equality Task Force (chaired by Professor Jane Grimson, TCD), compiling a fully developed action plan within a couple of months of her arrival. She met with roughly 70 people from around the university, including the president, the deans, heads of units, heads of department and senior academics, to ask what they thought of the report and what areas they were most concerned about improving on. Once the interviews were done, Professor Scott created a list of priorities and ways to achieve these goals.

“Right now, 21 of the 24 recommendations are either fully implemented or on target in terms of implementation, although there’s a couple, particularly around professional services, that we’re still working through,” said Professor Scott. Among the most visible changes is an increase in the number of female senior lecturers; currently, 43 per cent of those employed are women. It’s a dramatic turnaround for NUI Galway, from one of the lowest rates nationwide to one of the highest.

Childcare, maternity leave and opportunities for returning mothers/carers are also key issues to be addressed. While some metrics are easily determined, others are more ambient, more cultural, or correspond with hidden and tacitly enforced biases which are harder to identify. “The other thing that’s important for women, in particular in the academic sphere, is that there has been a lack of visibility of female role models,” Professor Scott said. “For example, I was the first woman to be appointed full professor at DCU. I was appointed in the year 2000. Until that time there hadn’t been any. If there are low numbers of women in the professoriate, which we know there are, that tends to reduce the pool of women going into leadership positions, because most institutions will look to their professoriate for recruiting other positions. By virtue of the fact that there’s only roughly 22 per cent women in the professoriate in Ireland, you’re only really drawing from less than a quarter of your talent pool, because there aren’t enough women in the pool in the first place.”

Women are under-represented in senior roles at third-level institutions in Ireland; while approximately 45 per cent of academic staff in this country are female, over 75% of the professoriate are men. This is where the mission of Professor Anne Scott and that of HEAnet align, because in Ireland women are similarly under-represented in tech. In Ireland right now, studies indicate that only roughly a quarter of the people working in STEM careers are women. Just under 1 per cent of the venture capital funding in Ireland goes to start-ups with female founders, and on average, women working in the IT sector in Ireland earn 17 per cent less than their male counterparts and make up only 19 per cent of the IT workforce. In both academia and in tech, to commit to redressing the balance is a significant challenge, and a brave statement of intent.

“With STEM it’s a difficult issue,” said Professor Scott, “because the problem starts at the very beginning of the pipeline. We need to start our interventions much earlier.” Warning of technology’s ability to perpetuate biases and inequalities, even as it attempts to overcome them, she noted the problems with apparently ‘neutral’ technology: “One of the big things people are now actively pointing out is the profound influence that artificial intelligence is going to have on our futures. Some of that is going to be very pragmatic and useful, but the people who are building those programmes and doing the coding are almost all men, and therefore you’re getting very stereotypical ideas being perpetuated.

“There’s a huge amount of work to be done to ensure that technology doesn’t perpetuate inequality rather than helping to solve it,” Professor Scott added. “The good thing about organisations like HEAnet is that it’s a great opportunity to begin to shape some of that future. It’s exciting having a young dynamic female chief executive for HEAnet, who comes from the tech industry, and who has a different perspective to the usual one . . . Now we have an opportunity to drive the conversation, as well as to act as role models for more women coming into the field in the future.”

Figures from the State Examinations Commission indicate an 11 per cent rise in the number of girls studying higher-level physics and a 9 per cent rise in those studying chemistry. Meanwhile at Junior Cert level, the number of girls sitting higher-level STEM subject exams is steadily rising too.

While at present only one in four working in the Irish tech sector is female, the hope is that this figure will rise in coming years as the tech industry becomes a more inclusive place. This change begins in connected classrooms: for HEAnet, connectivity is a catalyst, one capable of opening up the world for students, and transforming education for the better.

“We’re only scratching the surface of what’s possible,” Power said. “There’s so much opportunity for technology to help in education. Face-to-face connections will always be important, but I still believe technology can help in ways we haven’t even seen yet.”

Kerrie Power and Professor Anne Scott are both plenary speakers at HEAnet’s National Conference taking place on Wednesday 7 – Friday 9 November at the Galmont Hotel, Galway (formerly known as Radisson Blu).

Full details of the 2018 programme can be found on the HEAnet website: https://conferences.heanet.ie/2018/programme

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