Tuesday 18 December 2018

Michael Kelly: 'Who wants a job based solely on gender? The glass ceiling has to end but talent must be the deciding factor'

(L to R) Chair of the gender equality task force Marie O'Connor, An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister of State with special responsibility for Higher Education, Mary Mitchell O'Connor beside a statue of the 'Fearless Girl' during the launch of the Gender Action Plan 2018-2020: Accelerating Gender Equality in Irish Higher Education Institutions at the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins
(L to R) Chair of the gender equality task force Marie O'Connor, An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister of State with special responsibility for Higher Education, Mary Mitchell O'Connor beside a statue of the 'Fearless Girl' during the launch of the Gender Action Plan 2018-2020: Accelerating Gender Equality in Irish Higher Education Institutions at the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins
Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly

Ronald Reagan used to joke that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: "I'm from the government and I'm here to help." University leaders in Ireland will soon have their own form of 'help' in filling vacancies with the news that the Government is to insist on reserving certain professorships to female candidates.

The "only women need apply" roles are part of a plan by Higher Education Minister Mary Mitchell O'Connor to redress a gender imbalance in the upper echelons of Irish universities.

And it's unlikely to stop at college campuses. Gender quotas in politics have already meant very credible candidates have not been selected to run for election based on nothing other than the fact they are men and therefore ineligible according to the party hierarchy desperate to meet the quota.

If the Government has its way, we'll soon have the same when it comes to boards of directors where the only thing excluding a suitably qualified man is that he is, unfortunately for him, irredeemably a man.

I've never been a fan of social engineering and in the case of the gender action plan, I think it represents a dangerous departure from the idea that the person who is best qualified for the job is the person who should actually get the job.

I also don't understand why anyone would want a role where they knew the deciding factor between them and the competition was the fact of their sex.

There's no question that in many professions there is a glass ceiling which prevents women from getting ahead.

I don't for one second minimise the unique challenges women face in the workplace because of sexism.

The fact that women can - and do - get pregnant is also often a barrier to career progression.

Recent research carried out by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in Britain depressingly found discrimination against pregnant women and mothers is on the increase in the workplace.

The issue is further complicated by the fact that the discrimination is often subtle and masked by other business reasons and therefore hard to prove. The UK research reveals female employees who become pregnant often notice a change in attitude by their manager such as diversion of work to colleagues, exclusion from meetings or being relieved of responsibilities.

We can take it for granted that every sensible person is against workplace discrimination of any kind and wants to do anything possible to remedy it.

Where the division arises is on the thorny issue of whether the push should be for equality of opportunity alone or equality of outcome.

Equality of opportunity means each person has the same opportunity for success as every other. Whereas equality of outcome means that everyone gets the same thing.

In an ideal world, if everyone had the same opportunities then everyone's outcomes - their wages, position, etc - would be the same.

But this ignores lots of factors including simple facts such as some people might go over and above what is expected of them while other employees might be happy to do the bare minimum.

It is patently unfair that in this scenario both people would be equally rewarded or have the same career prospects.

The push for equality of outcome is inherently unjust and sends the dreadful message to some people - in the case of the gender action plan, men - that it doesn't matter how hard they work or how much they achieve, there are certain jobs that they can never aspire to.

There's also a blind spot when it comes to gender in education.

Almost nine out of every 10 (87pc) teachers at Irish primary schools and more than seven in 10 (71pc) at post-primary level are women.

This huge disparity hardly even raises a shrug of the shoulders despite the fact that it's obvious children would benefit from a better mix in the teaching profession.

There are, of course, reasons why teaching is attractive to women. Short days and long holidays, for example, are more family friendly and allow women to be mothers in a way that a lot of other jobs simply don't.

But it would be ludicrous to suggest male graduates should be fast-tracked into the teaching profession or jobs reserved for men alone.

Every effort should be made to make teaching a more credible option for boys leaving school.

Whatever barriers or perceptions exist that put men off teaching should be tackled. And women at third level should equally be given the same opportunities for career progression as their male counterparts.

Tinkering with recruitment processes to ensure that candidates from a particular gender, race or background will succeed also runs the risk of cheapening the job on offer.

How many people will secretly wonder whether a person getting such a promotion actually did so on merit or because the deck was stacked in their favour?

North of the Border, a place that knows a thing or two about discrimination, Catholics are now hugely represented in professions once alien to them.

Take the legal profession, for example. The lord chief justice is a Catholic, the attorney general is a Catholic and the recently retired director of public prosecutions was a Catholic.

They got these posts not because they were reserved for Catholics to redress a historic imbalance, but because gritty determination made education the number one priority for many Catholic families and they were best qualified for the jobs.

This should always be the deciding factor.

Dr Gráinne Hargaden lectures in organic chemistry at Dublin Institute of Technology and is amongst female academics uneasy with the gender action plan.

"Promote me because I'm the best person for the job, not because I'm a woman," she said on Twitter this week. It's hard to argue with that.

Equality of opportunity does level the playing field; trying to ensure certain outcomes inevitably creates unfairness.

Irish Independent

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