Tuesday 15 October 2019

Ivana Bacik: 'Gender quotas are necessary to help tackle hidden bias'


Stock photo: PA
Stock photo: PA

Ivana Bacik

I was delighted at the announcement that the Government will establish women-only professorships in third-level institutions to tackle structural gender inequality. This initiative is very necessary. Despite equal numbers of women and men entering academic careers, women make up less than a quarter of professors; we have never had a woman president or provost in any of our universities.

The new appointments will be introduced in a relatively restrictive manner, to apply only in areas where women are significantly under-represented (like engineering or science) and where other initiatives to promote gender equality have failed.

While the 'women-only professorship' initiative is likely to generate some predictable backlash from the 'political correctness gone mad' brigade, it can be justified on the same basis as gender quotas in politics. These quotas, also controversial when introduced in 2012, have already proven to be effective in tackling the same hidden structural bias in political culture.

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Back in 2009, I wrote a report for the Joint Oireachtas Justice Committee examining women's participation in politics. We found that women face serious obstacles in career progression, summarised as the 'four Cs': childcare, cash, confidence and culture.

In short, women tend to bear the bulk of child caring responsibilities; they earn less cash than me; lack sufficient confidence to put themselves forward for promotion; and have to endure a male-dominated culture in many workplaces.

In politics, we found a fifth 'C'; candidate selection procedures. Selection processes within political parties are highly complex, often including 'secret quotas' which tend to disadvantage women, based on a candidate's family name, sporting achievements or geographical base.

The report made recommendations to address these obstacles. The most controversial was the introduction of a gender quota to be imposed on political parties. Despite some opposition, the Irish quota was eventually introduced in the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act 2012. It means political parties will have their State funding cut by half, unless at least 30pc of their general election candidates are of each gender - rising to 40pc in 2023.

The quota was applied for the first time in the 2016 General Election, in which a record number of 35 women were elected to the Dáil. Women now make up 22pc of TDs; still far too low, but significantly more than we had ever previously achieved.

Experience shows us that, unless some enforceable legal target is introduced, the number of women in politics will not rise. The same is true of academic life, so the measures announced by Minister Mary Mitchell O'Connor are very welcome.

The original impetus for this announcement lies in the courageous case taken by Micheline Sheehy Skeffington, who succeeded with a discrimination claim against NUI Galway. Anyone who doubts the existence of hidden gender bias within our universities should read the 2014 decision.

Positive action works to tackle this hidden bias - it's an effective way to achieve change for women, both in politics and in academia.

Irish Independent

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