Sunday 22 September 2019

Ita O'Kelly: 'Reverse sexism is not a good look - and won't fix problem of top jobs for women'

Pictured at the launch of the Gender Action Plan 2018 - 2020 were, from left, An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar TD and Minister of state for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O'Connor, TD.
Iain White / Fennell Photography.
Pictured at the launch of the Gender Action Plan 2018 - 2020 were, from left, An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar TD and Minister of state for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O'Connor, TD. Iain White / Fennell Photography.
Ita O'Kelly

Ita O'Kelly

The proposal by Higher Education Minister Mary Mitchell O'Connor to create a whole cache of women-only positions in academia is quite the most ludicrous thing I have heard in a long time.

Coming from a female minister merely adds insult to injury.

The move, designed to tackle gender inequality in universities and colleges of higher education, will not wrest control of the plum jobs from the hands of men.

Nor will it deliver an equal playing field in a wider context.

It is a typically Irish solution. Yellow Pack jobs for the Ladyeez. Spare me.

The proposed move sidesteps the issue and throws a big cheque - compliments of the taxpayer - at it instead.

Will it be replicated across all State-funded organisations? If so, the cost implications are staggering.

It is insulting to women and gives a significant message to female students that women can't make it in their own right or on their own merit.

Instead, they need a special "girl's step-ladder" to help them to ascend the dizzy heights of the career ladder that men can climb with ease.

No. No. No.

The proposals form part of the recommendations of a Gender Equality Taskforce set up by Minister Mitchell O'Connor to look into the matter. They noted that it would take another 20 years, based on current practices, to achieve a 40pc tally of women at professorship level.

So, change the practices not the playing field.

There is a much simpler and a much more effective remedy for this issue. If State-funded organisations don't deliver on equality, they should forfeit a portion of their funding budget. Make no mistake about it, gender equality in the higher echelons of many State organisations is fairly thin on the ground.

Instead we have tokenism. A few women in senior positions are rolled out with monotonous regularity, to give an impression of plenty when the reality is not the case. The issue is an organisational culture that favours men over women. It is nothing short of outrageous. Creating extra gender-specific jobs won't address that bias.

Organisations funded by the taxpayer - including colleges that do not operate gender equality in terms of employment practices and promotion opportunities - should be penalised heavily in financial terms. That would concentrate minds.

Creating 45 positions just for women is a uniquely Irish take on an issue. Reverse sexism is not a good look and it won't resolve the matter.

Those State-funded organisations, including RTÉ and others who operate a gender pay gap, should also be rapped on the knuckles when it comes to funding.

Currently 54pc of staff at higher education institutions in Ireland are female. However 77pc at professorship level are male. A little over 30pc of females are in the highest-paid academic positions. There has never been a female president of any of the seven universities in the State over a period of 400 years.

However, the paucity of women in senior positions is not just peculiar to the field of higher education.

It is common across the board in business, the arts, banking, tech, media and government itself.

The Central Bank has expressed "serious concern" at the level of gender imbalance in the financial sector. Just 16pc of new chief executive post went to women in 2017. Dropping some ladies-only academic posts in a patronising, so-called "Talent Initiative" smacks of a grab for female votes rather than equality across the board for women from all walks of life.

The plan is to fund around 45 such female-only academic posts in the salary range of between €80,000 and €115,000 at an initial cost of around €6m. These presumably would be permanent positions with generous pension entitlements.

Will they be open to transgender applicants who identify as women?

While the initiative will enrich those who get the posts, it won't change the culture of men recruiting men across all sectors. We need a change of culture to affect real and lasting change.

Eloquent rhetoric about equality for all doesn't deliver. President Michael D Higgins gave a soaring speech at his inauguration. He talked of equality for all and reminded us women make up "a majority of the people on this planet".

However, bar his wife and the two previous female incumbents, there were precious few women on the podium behind him. Clearly gender inequality has no place in the field of education or anywhere else for that matter.

What is required is a sea-change in attitude, backed up by punitive financial penalties in the State sector.

If it sets a good example, the private sector will soon follow suit.

We need to get to a place whereby organisations who don't promote women in equal numbers are frowned upon and regarded as old-hat and out of step with acceptable practice.

If we can outlaw drink driving and the proliferation of plastic shopping bags with opprobrium, surely we can do the same for gender inequality in the workplace.

It is 2018 after all.

Irish Independent

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