Published in Issue 2 (March/April 2022), Platform, Volume 30

The ongoing saga of the institution’s struggle to reform its membership.

By Clare O’Halloran

The Royal Irish Academy (RIA) describes itself on its website as ‘an independent, all-island learned society established under Charter in 1785’ with ‘approximately 600 members, chosen for their distinguished contributions to scholarship and research in the sciences, humanities, social sciences and public service’. Membership is by election, it adds, and is considered ‘the highest academic honour in Ireland’.

I have long had an interest in the history of the RIA and particularly in how this originally male-only society has dealt over the centuries with the problem of whether, or how, to recognise the achievements of female scholars. My article in this magazine, ‘“Better without the ladies”: the Royal Irish Academy and the admission of women members’ (HI 19.6, Nov./Dec. 2011), explored the glacial process of admitting women, first in the nineteenth century as honorary members (meaning that they had no right to take part in Academy business or come to meetings) and then, very reluctantly, in the twentieth as full members. When in 1919 the law was changed to prevent learned societies from excluding women from membership on grounds of sex alone, it took the Academy a further 30 years to admit its first four female members (pictured below). To be fair, most of the other national academies in Europe also dragged their feet and did not open their doors to the other half of the human race until after the Second World War.

By 1957 the number of women members of the RIA had increased to just eleven, and there the figure remained for a further 30 years, meaning that in 1987 the eleven women constituted just over 5% of the total membership of 250. The pace of change then quickened somewhat, so that by 2011, when I was writing that article, women members numbered 56, although because of a steep increase in the overall membership to 455 they still represented less than 13% of the total. A further sampling in 2015 showed a definite upward trajectory, with the gender balance standing at 18% female to 82% male. At that point the RIA came into line with the Irish universities, where the number of women professors stood at 19% (that last figure had increased to 26% in 2019). In the same year, the Higher Education Authority (HEA) commissioned a national review of gender equality in higher education institutions, in response to the growing awareness of the clustering of female staff, academic and administrative, in the lower ranks while their male colleagues steadily ascended the promotions ladder. The report of the expert group in 2016 gathered together a comprehensive set of statistics and made recommendations both generally and to individual institutions as to how they should effect structural changes to ensure better gender balance over the short to medium term.

The RIA, deemed a stakeholder by the HEA expert group, came under their statistical searchlight, which publicly revealed the gender balance problem. Their main recommendation was that over the period 2018–21 the Academy should set a target that ‘the final number of candidates for election to membership will be comprised of a minimum of 40% female’. In 2014 the Academy had, in fact, managed to elect its first female president, the UCD historian Prof. Mary E. Daly, and, encouragingly, two of the last three of its presidents have been women, the current president being the educationalist Dr Mary Canning. Nevertheless, just as the election of not one but two female presidents of our country in succession had little or no positive effect on the gender balance in Dáil Éireann, so the RIA has, since 2016, wholly failed to make any inroads into the male dominance of its membership. Tellingly, when in 2017, to overcome a declining membership total, the number of new members to be elected annually was increased from twelve to twenty, this also had no impact on gender balance, which has stubbornly remained at 81% male to 19% female.

By this stage it had become clear to the Academy that the problem, and its solution, lay in how new members were selected; the process was antiquated and ran counter to a modern inclusive ethos. Researches in their archive confirm this in a small but significant way: in the 1990s, and perhaps later, the form for the proposal of new members was the same one in use 100 years previously—when women were barred—and it therefore referred to the potential new member as ‘he’. In May 2021 the Academy commissioned an independent review of the membership process; the committee charged with the review consisted of four members of equivalent national learned societies in Scotland, Norway, Hungary and the UK, and their report was published in October 2021 (and available on the RIA website). Rather than focusing on improving gender balance alone, however, the committee’s brief was extended to the achievement of ‘diversity’, the new buzzword in higher education institutions, denoting commitment to increased representation for minorities as well as for women. Most of these institutions now have an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) unit to promote this agenda.

As part of its work, the committee canvassed the views of members and non-members on the selection process. The ways in which the Academy is perceived by non-members are interesting, although hardly surprising. The predominant theme is that it is an old boys’ club for older white males, whose membership selection procedures ensure that that monopoly continues by preventing the encroachment of newer disciplines (many of these, in the social sciences, containing greater proportions of women than the long-established disciplines). As if to confirm this, the 2021 intake included the first-ever member from a university business school and a woman to boot, UCD’s Prof. Niamh Brennan.

Above: Portraits by Vera Klute of the first four women to become Members of the Royal Irish Academy in 1949—Sheila Tinney (née Power, UCD), Françoise Henry (UCD), Phyllis Clinch (UCD) and Eleanor Knott (TCD). (Vera Klute/Eoin Kirwan)

The committee has established that this monopoly is also geographic, with UCD, Trinity and Queen’s University Belfast dominating the membership. The universities outside Dublin, and even more so the former Institutes of Technology (now mostly grouped into Technological Universities), are woefully underrepresented.

The committee has come up with a number of useful recommendations to make the selection process responsive to an EDI agenda. Among these is an increase in the numbers elected every year, with the focus firmly on ‘increasing diversity’. To expand the number of proposals for underrepresented groups and disciplines, ‘nomination groups’ from within the membership should actively look for likely candidates. As hitherto a disproportionately small group from among existing members proposed new members, so the pool of proposers and seconders from within the membership should be widened. There is to be a new rule that the proposer and seconder must be from different institutions. This is to militate against the traditional pattern of members only nominating candidates from their own institutions, thereby continuing the geographical dominance of Dublin and Belfast.

So where does this leave the female half of the human race? It remains to be seen whether an EDI agenda will reverse the entrenched pattern of their exclusion faster than one focused entirely on gender balance. Could it happen that EDI energies will mainly be put into redressing the underrepresentation of minorities? For example, the diversity requirement would be at least partially satisfied by electing more men from minority ethnic backgrounds and less-established disciplines. A further reservation is that the report’s narrow focus on the RIA itself misses that inevitable elephant in the room: the universities, from which the RIA draws almost all of its members. The ongoing failure of the universities (both new and old) to redress the gender balance in their institutions comes across clearly in a 2020 publication from the HEA, Higher education institutional staff profiles by gender, which reveals that in 2019 women held only 34% of senior academic positions (comprising professors, associate professors and senior lecturers) in the old universities, while in the new technological universities the figure for female senior lecturers (currently the most senior rank) stood at 36%. As the universities seem unwilling or unable to make serious inroads into that imbalance, it behoves the RIA to move out of their shadow. By that I do not mean looking exclusively outside the third-level institutions for its new members (there is talk, for example, of bringing in new blood from industry), but rather that it should pay less attention to academic rank as a consideration in its selection system at a time when the promotions systems in most of the Irish universities are still way behind the curve when it comes to advancing talented women. Hopefully the new nomination groups will be actively looking for such women, regardless of whether their universities have seen fit to recognise their achievements. In fact, if this were to happen, and the RIA were to welcome such scholars as members, it would quickly stop being part of the problem and instead show the universities what following an equality agenda truly entails.

Clare O’Halloran taught in the School of History, University College Cork, until 2021.


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