The Government has proposed the creation of women-only senior academic posts in universities and institutes of technology in Ireland, with the aim of addressing the dearth of women in senior academic positions.

The proposal is contained in a report due to be published tomorrow.

The Government's gender action plan says "gender-specific" posts should be considered where they would be "a proportionate and effective means to achieve rapid and sustainable change". 

Just 24% of professors in Irish higher education are female, despite the fact that women make up half the overall workforce in the sector.

Minister of State with responsibility for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O'Connor says she wants to see women holding 40% of professorships by 2024, but the Gender Action Plan report to be published tomorrow notes that progress in other European countries where strong gender equality policies have been implemented, has been slow.

The report estimates that under current progression rates here, it could take 20 years to achieve the 40% goal. 

It cites examples in Australia, Germany, and the Netherlands, where women-only posts were advertised or created. 

The University of Melbourne advertised for female-only positions at lecturer, senior lecturer, and associate professor level in its school of Mathematics and Statistics to counteract the lack of female representation in the field.

Last year Berlin's prestigious Max Planck Institute launched a women-only programme for senior academic roles.

In the Netherlands the University of Delft has begun offering women-only fellowships at assistant, associate, and full professor level. 

The report states that the Dutch programme has been so successful that the university has increased the number of positions available under the scheme from ten to 13. 

The proposal is likely to prove controversial in Ireland, and, if implemented, is expected to be subjected to a legal challenge.

Ireland's laws prohibit discrimination on a number of grounds including gender, and the creation of positions that would be closed to male applicants may appear to contravene that.  

The Higher Education Authority and the Department of Education, say, however that legal advice says the proposal would be allowable under Irish law. 

In the Netherlands a man took a case to that country's Institute for Human Rights, claiming that the creation of woman-only posts breached his right to equality, but the institute ruled that this was an acceptable positive-action measure. 

In a statement, Ms Mitchell O'Connor said that the past four years had seen only "a marginal improvement" in the university sector of 1-2% per year on average, from a starting position of 18% female professors in 2013 to just 24% in 2017.

The minister said that the Government was committed to eradicating gender inequality in the country's Higher Education Institutions.

She said the "far-reaching measure" of gender-specific senior academic positions directly responded to the significant under-representation of women at professorial level, and had a central role to play in evidencing the depth and breadth of female excellence in the higher education sector.