Impact & Opinions | Tionchar & Tuairimí

Dr Helen Maher, Vice President for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, University of Galway   

Dr Helen Maher, Vice President for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, University of Galway   

15 December 22
 | 25 MINS

Whose identity, experience and knowledge matters and how are we accountable for including diverse perspectives and characteristics? These are questions that Dr Helen Maher, Vice President for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI), addresses on a daily basis at University of Galway. We sat down with Helen to reflect on our progress to date, the steps still to take and the vital difference that EDI makes to a university community.

Bríd Seoige: How are we performing as a University in our commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in the classroom and as an employer?

Helen Maher: Looking at external recognition of our progress over the past two years, there has been significant successes in funding; we were awarded a million in funding by the HEA on the basis of a case study we submitted in relation to progress on gender equality. That is an external validation of the progress that we’ve made in terms of our commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion with regard to our focus on the experiences of staff (albeit very much in the area of gender equality). Secondly, the university was awarded over €800,000 for the Access Centre’s efforts in widening participation – increasing opportunities and providing pathways and supports for entry and progression in Higher Education.

Our commitment to EDI for staff and students is a journey. We’re progressing but there is always more work to do. The establishment of the Task Force on Gender Equality in 2015 was a seminal moment in that journey, in shaping and sharpening the focus on gender inequality. In some ways, this was a crisis situation, a critical response to the fact that women were putting gender inequality on the agenda in the University, through actions taken to address specific inequalities in career progression.

The promotions panel achieved significant change, with the number of women at senior lecturer level increasing from 33% to 46%, and at personal professor grade, 16% to 28% [2022].

Since then, there has been specific progress in academic promotions. The promotions panel achieved significant change, with the number of women at senior lecturer level increasing from 33% to 46%, and at personal professor grade, 16% to 28% [2022]. Women currently represent 23.7% of the professoriate at University of Galway. Figures like this illustrate change but also hold up a mirror to help us to continue to improve. We need to understand our promotions process more in order to ensure efficacy in addressing inequalities for all staff. We also need to look at other measures such as the intersection of race, gender and disability. Identities are multifaceted; we have to address those complexities.

We have successfully renewed our Athena SWAN Institutional Award [a global framework supporting gender equality within higher education]. There is a number of school awards, and the Silver Award for the School of Engineering is the only the second of its kind in the Republic of Ireland and the first in Engineering. These signals of progress are accompanied by a set of expected tangible actions. The emphasis in Athena SWAN can often be more to the advantage of academic women. It’s important that we don’t lose sight of enabling opportunities for progression for PMSS [professional, managerial and support staff] – a highly gendered area. The job sizing scheme introduced this year has been one measure to address that.

Student experience is another important focus – widening participation and attention to the diversity of student needs. What kind of systems and supports are in place to firstly recognise those differentiated needs, and secondly, respond directly to them? The Access Centre focuses on this area. The establishment of the post of Traveller Officer in the Access Centre was an innovative initiative, increasing the visibility of challenges for members of the Traveller community, and creating a more supportive environment. Access is only one measure of equality; we have to consider the route for progression after access. What are we doing to make the University a supportive place for Travellers, or people from other underrepresented communities?

We have been working in other related areas, including sexual violence and harassment prevention and response. We continue to develop our strategy, policies and practices, but we need that whole-of-institution approach and a theoretical basis. Understanding informs actions, and equality doesn’t exist in a vacuum. People have different views and perspectives. For some people, equality is as simple as saying, “we treat everybody the same,” but treating everyone the same is not an effective approach. People have different needs by virtue of their characteristics and societal responses to these aspects of identity. It’s not enough to simply have policies and practices that adhere to the national legislative and rights framework. We can’t provide a supportive environment, regardless of background or identity, without first understanding barriers to substantive equality. Inequality is systemically rooted in higher education and the wider society.

BS: What structural and operational changes has University of Galway embedded so far?

HM: Initially, it was the establishment of the post of the Vice President for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion. That was a real recognition of commitment to progressing EDI; we were one of the first Higher Education institutions to introduce such a senior role. We have senior personnel leading out on the delivery of an impactful strategy; for example, the post of Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion and the support structure developed to support this work in practice is encouraging. The level of action needed to address systemic inequalities cannot be achieved by one person. We have to collaborate and take collective responsibility. In that regard, the EDI Committee (EDIC) was established as a subcommittee under Údarás na hOllscoile – placingEDI at the heart of institutional governance – with staff, student and external representation.

We often hold experiences of inequality as personal to us, but when we connect with others that have experienced similar challenges, we begin to see the structural nature of the issue. That allows us to situate our experience among a wider context, and that is an important aspect of the staff networks.

In addition, we have the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Campus Committee, with a broad representation of staff working in multiple areas. This year, we established The Universal Design Accessibility Working Group, as well as the Sexual Violence and Harassment Prevention and Response Committee. Our University Women’s Network has existed for 10+ years, and the International Staff Network and LGBT+ Staff Network provide shared understanding for all experiences. We often hold experiences of inequality as personal to us, but when we connect with others that have experienced similar challenges, we begin to see the structural nature of the issue. That allows us to situate our experience among a wider context; that is an important aspect of the staff networks.

Operational changes such as those achieved by the promotions panel were established on the basis of extensive consultation with experts in the UK. So, we are willing to look outwards to best practice elsewhere and see what we can adopt that can be meaningful in our own context. We have introduced a number of grants to support women through their mid-career cycle and those returning from maternity leave, for example, and leadership programs for women like the Aurora programme. There is wide suite of EDI training available, such as unconscious bias training in recruitment and equality impact assessments.

BS: What are three ways in which we can strengthen EDI within our teaching, learning and research mythologies?

HM: My starting point would be curriculum development. There are review cycles in which we can develop curricula to meet the diversity of student backgrounds, abilities and learning styles. In the same vein, we can make sure that curriculum content is not solely representative of Western, Eurocentric academic research, that it accounts for the diversity of knowledge itself.

The next area I would focus on is graduate attributes. There is a real opportunity for innovation and creative skills in third level education. Thirdly, we can take a collaborative approach to learning. A safe learning environment is one in which students feel that their voice, experience and identity is valued, and not ‘othered’. The key point here is to recognise diverse characteristics as something to be celebrated.

Representation can't just be a by-product of ad hoc actions; it has to be by design.

BS: In your view, what can be done to ensure a College/School is truly representative of the wider population?

HM: I would start with awareness and evidence. Meaningful representation starts with a clear strategic approach and set of objectives. Representation can’t just be a by-product of ad hoc actions; it has to be by design. By representative, I refer to all of those groups that have traditionally been underrepresented in higher education.

Representation is symbolically important in constructing Colleges, Schools and institutional structures as inclusive spaces, it is about how our internal communities are created and how we understand what it means to be authentically represented. There are particular mechanisms that target diversity in relation to student and staff recruitment. Even with these interventions, the conditions within which students and staff experience education and their workplace environment have to match that with a culture that is inclusive.

Diversity is sometimes seen as a burden; we need to switch focus to the value that diversity creates among students and staff. Diversity can enhance productivity and enrich the learning and working environment.

Representation on its own isn’t enough. We have to create an environment where students and staff can actually achieve their potential without these barriers. It comes down to changing mindsets, attitudes and behaviours. Diversity is sometimes seen as a burden; we need to switch focus to the value that diversity creates among students and staff. Diversity can enhance productivity and enrich the learning and working environment when our different characteristics are respected and celebrated. While it’s not easy to switch people’s mindsets, if we can focus on that value, we can make a difference to education and the career pipeline. In addition, a rights-based approach recognises that everyone has the right to participate in higher education on an equitable basis. If we don’t have that diversity in our student cohort, we won’t see that diversity in our future researchers, academics and professional and support services staff in higher education.

Pull quote: “EDI is an interesting way to achieve those graduate attributes because equality requires critical and reflective thinking. And that critical thinking informs students' capacity for leadership and self-awareness. There is a real potential synergy between how we embed EDI and how we embed creativity in third level education.”

BS:  Many of our students are entering a workplace that demands innovative thinking and creative skills. What are some of the ways in which EDI enriches creativity in third level education?

HM: We can really add value to the student experience in embedding EDI in the curriculum, whether that is standalone modules or within modules in student programmes. Developing core graduate attributes is central to all aspects of higher education. EDI is an interesting way to achieve those attributes because equality requires critical and reflective thinking. And that critical thinking informs students’ capacity for leadership and self-awareness. There is a real potential synergy between how we embed EDI and how we embed creativity in third level education.

We are currently developing a race equality framework and action plan, facilitating focus groups with students and staff. That is an opportunity for students to represent their own ideas in a group and build their confidence in speaking amongst their peers in a safe space. This allows students to learn from their peers and deepen their awareness. Achieving those graduate attributes is not always down to the formal curriculum. The Active* Consent programme is another valuable avenue for workshops that create awareness around a key aspect of equality – sexual violence and harassment. That is critical in terms of changing behaviours.

I have experience in writing integrated assessment modules in an EDI context where students developed web pages. We were looking at social media content related to social movement theory and activism. So, two modules (Social movements and Creativity and Social Media) were assessed through the one medium; that really enhances creativity.

Equality isn't separate from who I am; it’s part of how I see the world.

BS: One of the University values is “Excellence”. Do you see any conflict between the pursuit of excellence on the one hand, and EDI on the other?

HM: In the same way that I don’t think we can make assumptions about what we understand by equality, excellence only becomes compatible with EDI when we start to problematise the term. ‘Excellence’ comes with all kinds of normative connotations. Who decides what constitutes excellence? Are our metrics informed by multiple perspectives, or a singular measure?

We often think of excellence as an objective judgement because we have a set of measurements and instruments, but this too goes back to the question, “Who has established those set of measurements and whose particular interests do they reflect?” How do you make knowledge count when it doesn’t follow mainstream academic conventions? That isn’t to say that you can’t measure. We do need some understanding of quality, so that our work is not meaningless or taking place in a vacuum, but if we can broaden that definition, it adds real potential value to equality, diversity and inclusion. For example, I was at a conference recently and a Professor of Sociology discussed the concept of academic excellence in the context of achieving a higher education environment that is free from sexual violence and harassment, that is a really interesting and innovative perspective on excellence. I think we can reach a point where excellence and EDI are mutually reinforcing. Our commitment to EDI should absolutely strive for excellence in a meaningful way, that promotes substantive equality.

BS: How has your own personal outlook informed your commitment to equality?

HM: Equality is not separate from who I am; it’s part of how I see the world. I am privileged by my background and the insights from working with people from different parts of the world, and even in Ireland – different communities from working class communities in Dublin, to rural Clare, and the border counties. I learned from those experiences that we can’t just sit back and expect that things will change; there is so much work to be done. On a personal note, my children’s ethnicity is mixed, so there is also a personal factor for me in terms of how their identity is mediated and responded to in Irish society; being Irish, female and of colour.

Taking all of that into consideration, I have committed to the outlook that it’s not okay to live in a world where people are not valued or offered meaningful opportunities because of aspects of their identity. Once you have knowledge, you have a responsibility to act on that knowledge. Theoretical or evidence-based understanding is limited unless you do something about it, but it’s not easy. Change is achieved collectively and that’s why it’s great to have so many committed people in the University driving this agenda.


0 / 5. Vote count: 0

Discover More
SDG Champion

Aligning our Research with Sustainable Development Goals

In today’s hyper developed and interconnected world, we see isolated actions give rise to global repercussions like never before. As a framework for addressing global issues, the UN Sustainable Development Goals are a call to action for universities to consider the wider impact of their research. Here VP for Research & Innovation, Prof James Livesey explains how the SDGs have inspired a new approach to research strategy and prioritisation.

SDG Champion

In Conversation: Dorothy Creaven, Rent the Runway

Since its 2009 launch, Rent the Runway has made headlines as a sustainable alternative to fast fashion, and more recently as the first female-founded company with a female CEO, COO and CFO to go public. Rent the Runway’s e-commerce service allows users to rent clothes from 800+ designers, disrupting a trillion-dollar fashion sector. At its European HQ in the heart of Galway City, University of Galway alum Dorothy Creaven is transforming the company’s digital infrastructure as VP and Managing Director. We sat down with Dorothy to discuss the impact of her work in building a sustainable future for fashion.
SDG Champion

The Real-World Effects of Cyberbullying

Easy access to virtual social space has seen young people face dangers of cyberbullying, sextortion and online victimisation. Many primary schools have taken steps to ban smartphones on school grounds, following the launch of government guidelines on restrictions of smartphone use among young people. According to Assistant Professor of Psychology, Dr Mairéad Foody, research is key in informing quality prevention and intervention among schools, parents and guardians.

Keep up to date on the latest from us straight to your inbox

Privacy policy