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Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Women have the right to be as incompetent as men'

If men who are useless can get to the top, there's no reason why women must be brilliant to do likewise, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

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Equality debate: Mary Mitchell O’Connor

Equality debate: Mary Mitchell O’Connor

Equality debate: Mary Mitchell O’Connor

Labour's Alan Kelly once described the handling of questions in the Dail by Mary Mitchell O'Connor as "the worst I have seen in a minister". He denied that his scorn came from the fact that the Fine Gael deputy was a woman, and there's no reason not to take him at his word.

Uselessness on the Government benches has always come in a range of shapes, sizes and genders. No one sex has a monopoly on incompetence.

That, though, is also worth remembering when considering the scheme now being overseen by the Minister of State with responsibility for higher education to open up dozens of posts in universities over the next three years to women-only applicants, which came into effect last week.

The grandly named Senior Academic Leadership Initiative (SALI) has been criticised in some quarters as an outrageous and sinister act of social engineering, which, be honest, is probably pushing it.

The minister has even been warned that her plans may face a challenge in the courts on sexual discrimination grounds, though the Attorney General has signed off on its legality, and similar schemes operate successfully in other European countries.

Assuaging any fears that men are being hounded to extinction, O'Connor insists that SALI is an addition to, rather than a replacement for, current career opportunities in education. Crucially, the measures are being concentrated in disciplines where women are woefully under-represented.

The crucial question remains: would it really be so bad for higher education if women actually did take over?

Only a quarter of professors in Ireland are female, and a woman has never been president of an Irish university. The end result of this male dominance is that the institutions under their command continue to fare badly in international league tables.

The latest QS World University Rankings, published last week, found Trinity still under-performing in 108th place, down from 104 last year and 88 the year before. Other Irish universities also languish in the lower ranks internationally.

The release of the new league table led, inevitably, to defensive protests from the groves of academia that the rankings are "meaningless", prompting the cynical response: Well, they would say that, wouldn't they?

There were also the usual complaints that a lack of investment was to blame for the shortfall in standards.

Both objections have some merit. There's too much emphasis on research rather than the quality of teaching in these league tables, and better-financed colleges do perform to higher standards than those which are struggling for cash; but, however the rankings are measured, it's still an incontrovertible fact that the men who have run Irish universities since time immemorial can hardly claim to be smashing it out of the park, to the extent that they deserve the chance to carry on regardless without having some monstrous regiment of women imposed on them by ministerial decree.

The same goes for the rest of society. For years, the argument went that it was patronising to women to suggest that they needed a leg up. In a meritocratic society, ability and qualifications should be what counted. Women would get there eventually, once given the opportunity to excel.

It was a superficially beguiling argument. No one likes to think that they got where they are just because of a particular set of chromosomes.

The only flaw in it was that well, and sometimes overly, qualified women still continued not to get where they deserved to be, while legions of men with little apparent brilliance or genius kept making it to the top with alarmingly little effort.

Put it this way. In a world where Boris Johnson is about to become British prime minister, it's hard to argue that the only reason women still aren't dominating public life to the same extent as men is because they're not as good.

The next great step forward in equality will be when those who champion women's rights, such as Mary Mitchell O'Connor, stop talking about women having the right to high positions on the grounds that they "are as capable and efficient as their male peers", and start demanding that women have every right to be as incapable and inefficient as the men who are already above them in seniority.

The real problem is that traits which are associated with masculinity are disproportionately rewarded in life. Reckless risk-taking is one, as organisational psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic points out in his recently published book Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders (And How To Fix It). Boris might be the latest proof of that. Some of these traits equally disadvantage other men who don't play the game with the same mad abandon as their more aggressive and over-confident peers.

Some traits which are valued are so random as to be baffling. For example, Chamorro-Premuzic describes how Americans have not elected a shorter than average President since 1896, and how the tallest candidate has won the race for the White House 75pc of the time. What does height have to do with leadership? There's equally scant reason to associate maleness with aptitude either.

Of course, men will point out that women are not seeking the right to be equally represented in other male-dominated occupations, such as deep sea diving, waste management, and steelworking, which are among the most dangerous ways to earn a living. They do have a point. Equality only seems to be sought in all the nicer middle class professions.

On the other hand, most of the men making this argument aren't climbing ladders to repair electricity lines in a force-10 gale either. They're usually moaning about the suffering of their fellow men from behind a desk in the office.

If they really think it's unfair that certain people are left to do all the dirtiest, most hazardous jobs, then there is a way to solve the problem: Go and swap places with them. No one's stopping you, lads.

Sunday Independent