Staff requirement to promote ‘gender ideology’ is threat to academic freedom, say lecturers

Universities in Ireland required to participate in charter to be eligible for State research funding

A newly formed group campaigning to protect academic freedom in higher education says a requirement for university staff to pledge their commitment to “gender ideology” is a threat to freedom of speech.

The Athena Swan charter, set up by a UK-based charity Advance HE, was launched in Ireland in 2015 and aimed to boost representation of women in science. It has since broadened to advocate for gender equality across all disciplines in higher education.

Among the charter’s principles are that applicants must pledge to “foster collective understanding that individuals have the right to determine and affirm their gender”.

Universities in Ireland are required to participate in the charter to become eligible for State research funding, under rules overseen by the Higher Education Authority.


The new Dublin universities branch of the campaign group Academics for Academic Freedom has called for the charter’s removal on the ground that it limits freedom of speech and threatens academic freedom.

Dr Tim Crowley, a lecturer at UCD’s school of philosophy and member of the group, said the principles were “politically and philosophically contentious”.

“Every single participant in the Athena Swan scheme in Ireland has thus committed, or has been committed, to embracing and promoting gender ideology,” he said.

Yet, he said, the Universities Act states that academic staff shall have the freedom to question received wisdom, put forward new ideas and state controversial or unpopular opinions, without suffering any disadvantage.

Dr Crowley said the issue was less about the politics of the principles, but rather the “demand for commitment and pledging is itself the problem”.

“I would like to think that if I myself were an advocate of such policies, I would still baulk at the idea of demanding that colleagues, current and future, commit to these things,” he said.

Dr Crowley said Athena Swan “boasted” in its literature that the decision of funding bodies to tie eligibility for research grants to holding one of its awards was “an effective ‘stick’” to force universities to apply for such awards.

He said there has been little pushback to these “politically and philosophically partisan” principles due, partly, to a “startling amount of ignorance regarding academic freedom among Irish academics”.

The UK version of the charter has been changed in recent years to remove a reference to “fostering collective understanding” around gender identity, and is no longer tied to research funding. The Irish version remains unchanged.

In a statement, Advance HE said the charter principles were developed in consultation with the Irish higher education sector.

“The Athena Swan Ireland framework does not prescribe particular policies or approaches to EDI [equality, diversity and inclusion]. Universities determine their own action plans to tackle inequalities and the plans are independently peer reviewed by staff in the Irish higher education sector. Any policy regarding participation in Athena Swan and research funding are matters for Ireland policymakers and are not determined by Advance HE,” it said.

The Higher Education Authority (HEA) said it believed the principles did not “compel speech or belief, nor does it do anything to prevent any academic following wherever their practice or research leads; the essence of academic freedom”.

It said that all public bodies are required under the Irish Human Rights and Equality Act (2014) to seek to eliminate discrimination, promote equality of opportunity and protect the human rights of public sector staff, service users and everyone affected by their policies and plans.

“This is an obligation that universities are required to be spaces where differences are welcome and respected. The Athena Swan Ireland principles align with these requirements. Institutions, rather than individuals, sign up to these principles,” the HSA said.

The Department of Further and Higher Education said there were no plans to review the charter.

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Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent