Exploring gender equality in Irish higher education: Qualitative case-study research into the response to, and process of, Athena SWAN

Project Overview and Aims

GendeResearchIreland is a four-year fellowship research project hosted by ISS21 and conducted by Dr Monica O’Mullane, a Research Fellow funded by the EC Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship (Career Restart Panel) programme. GendeResearchIreland is exploring gender equality in Irish higher education through qualitative research on the Athena SWAN Charter, launched in the UK in 2005 and managed there by Advance HE. It is a gender equality programme which seeks to promote good practice in recruiting, retaining and promoting women in science and research. Athena SWAN was introduced to the Irish higher education sector in 2015, coordinated in the Republic of Ireland by the Higher Education Authority (HEA). It has been designated a central role in addressing gender inequalities in Irish higher education, as recommended in the The Report of the Expert Group: HEA National Review of Gender Equality in Irish Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) (2016) (Expert Group Report) “as a useful tool in assisting institutions in changing their organisational culture” (page 17). The Expert Group Report recommended that Athena SWAN award attainment is a requirement for research funding eligibility; HEIs in Ireland could potentially lose access to research funding if they do not achieve the awards in a set timeframe.

Within this context, GendeResearchIreland will explore the change processes instigated by the Athena SWAN Charter programme in three cases (three Irish higher education institutions). The project seeks to understand the role, position and perception of Athena SWAN within Irish higher education. The research will look in particular at how Athena SWAN is being adopted and utilised in higher education, in an Irish context, how institutions respond to the change process implied in the initiative, and why the processes of Athena SWAN vary in different contexts. Monica is working with Dr Caitríona Ní Laoire as mentor, who was also the Irish PI on the multi-country FP7 funded GENOVATE (Transforming Organisational Culture for Gender Equality in Research and Innovation) project, in which Monica also participated, as scientific coordinator of the Slovak partner team.

As is the norm within the work of a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship, Monica is engaged in a number of other activities, such as the ISS21 Genders, Sexualities and Families (GSF) Cluster reading group, meeting three/ four times a year, as well cofounding with Dr Caitríona Ní Laoire the ISS21 Gender and the Academy Research Group within the GSF Research Cluster. This Research Group is formed partly with the post-Genovate Research Group along with others in the institution who are working on and/ or passionate about the topic of gender equality issues in science and research within a higher education sectoral context.

Project Outputs & Events
  • Website launched in 2021 which showcases both the work of my MSCA project, GendeResearchIreland, situated within my overall research trajectory.
  • Published RTE Brainstorm articles: COVID-19 and HIACork as a Healthy City, and All you need to know about Marie Curie
  • Steering group member of W.H.O designated Cork Healthy Cities since 2018; co-editing a book celebrating ten years of Cork Healthy Cities work (2012-2022) with Ms. Denise Cahill, Coordinator of Cork Healthy Cities. To be published 2022/ 2023, with support from Cork City Council.
  • O’Mullane, M. (2021), ‘Exploring the Institutional Response to a Gender Equality Programme (Athena SWAN) in Irish Higher Education,’ Stream # 40 Gender and Power in Higher Education. Gender, Work and Organization Virtual Conference, Kent, UK. 2nd July.
  • O’Mullane, M. (2021) ‘Exploring the discourses of actors working to institutionalise the Athena SWAN Charter in the academy’as part of the panel ‘The Caring University,’ Sociological Association of Ireland Annual Virtual Conference. 7th May.
  • Public engagement workshops delivered to secondary school students: St Colmans Fermoy (2022) and St Als Cork City and Scoil Mhuire Ballingeary County Cork (2019). The workshops openly discuss and share the benefits of my research and research careers generally, and to bring knowledge and expertise on the topic of gender equality in higher education to the public (in this case, secondary school students and school environment). The aim of the workshop is also to illustrate the importance of maximising diversity in research and science.
  • O’Mullane, M. (2021) ‘Developing a theoretical framework for exploring the institutional responses to the Athena SWAN Charter in higher education institutions (HEIs)- A feminist institutionalist perspective,’ Irish Journal of Sociology, Online First
  • O’Mullane, M. (2021), ‘Maintaining, Challenging or Disrupting the Status Quo? Exploring the Institutional Response to a Gender Equality Programme (Athena SWAN) in one Irish University’, Gender Equality Certification: Lessons Learnt and Future Developments, Centre for Diversity Policy Research and Practice, Oxford Brookes University, 25th February 2021.
  • 'Why are There More Men in Senior Management?' presented as part of the Pint of Science Ireland Festival, Cork, 21st May 2019. In this presentation, Dr O’Mullane discussed her research and talked about her own career journey. Pint of Science is a global initiative which bring researchers into communities to talk about their research to a largely lay audience. Further details available here
  • In November 2019 Dr O’Mullane, on behalf of GendeResearchIreland, invited Professor Uduak Archibong to speak with the UCC community on the topic of Institutionalising Gender Equality.  Monica also shared some initial reflections from her own research on Athena SWAN. Further information on the event is available here
  • GendeResearchIreland was showcased at Cork Discovers 2019, along with other ISS21-hosted research projects.  Cork Discovers is part of European Researchers’ Night, which ran across 27 countries on the night of Friday, September 27. Further details are available here  
  • O’Mullane, M. (2018) ‘Implementing a European gender equality project in a Slovak university: A personal perspective,’ ISS21 Seminar to the UCC Community, 17th December.
  • A symposium took place in UCC on 14th November 2022 to mark the completion of the GendeResearchIreland project. This event brought together experts, practitioners and activists interested in the topic of embedding gender equality in higher education institutions. Further details are available here
  • O’Mullane, M. (2023) ‘What do the narratives tell us? Exploring the implementation of the Athena SWAN Ireland Charter’, Frontiers in Sociology
Project Funding and Duration:

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No.750408. The project ran from 2018 - 2022.


For information on the project contact Dr. Monica O'Mullane, 

Details on Dr Mullane's research interests and work are available here



Dr Monica O'Mullane and Professor Uduak Archibong and at the Institutionalising Gender Equality seminar 15 Nov. 2019.

Institute for Social Science in the 21st Century (ISS21)

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