Monday 10 December 2018

Why higher education must get its act together over gender equality - now

Our new taskforce aims to eradicate the inexcusable under-representation of women at senior level

'Gender inequality shouldn't exist in any area of Irish life. That it should exist in our higher education institutions - and it does - is doubly wrong, because these are the colleges where the best minds gather and which develop national and international thinkers' (stock photo)
'Gender inequality shouldn't exist in any area of Irish life. That it should exist in our higher education institutions - and it does - is doubly wrong, because these are the colleges where the best minds gather and which develop national and international thinkers' (stock photo)

Mary Mitchell O'Connor

From Weinstein to Westminster, a gender war is being waged. Who would have thought the Hollywood casting couch and the hallowed halls of British bureaucracy would appear in the same sentence? But if that means women's voices are being heard then that is a good thing, isn't it? None of it makes very palatable reading, because every story is laden with tales of men who are full of entitlement.

Gender inequality shouldn't exist in any area of Irish life. That it should exist in our higher education institutions - and it does - is doubly wrong, because these are the colleges where the best minds gather and which develop national and international thinkers.

That gender inequality, which amounts to discrimination pure and simple, is prevalent in this context simply isn't good enough. Nor is it enough to hope that enlightened thinking will prevent some of the egregious examples of discrimination affecting mostly, but not exclusively, women from recurring. We can't wait in a prayerful, trusting position. It's time for action.

That's why, tomorrow, I am announcing the Department of Education's Gender Equality taskforce. That taskforce will outline the strategies and good practices we need to put in place within our institutions of higher education to ensure the equality of women when applying for promotion.

It can be argued that good practices on paper aren't that effective when it comes to unconscious, indeed subconscious, bias, but that's the logical place to start.

Through setting up of the taskforce, I'm sending a blunt message to third-level institutions where the top echelons are dominated to an inexplicable extent by men. That blunt message is: "Get your act together. Here are the rules that should always have informed your promotion processes. We can't fix the past. But you can fix the future. Starting right now."

The taskforce won't be dealing in a philosophical way with this issue. We're way past that.

During my time in my current job, I intend to eradicate the clear under-representation of women at senior level in higher education institutions. The first Irish university was set up 424 years ago and, since then, no university here has had a female president. That was excusable 400 years ago. Perhaps even 300, 200 or 100 years ago.

In the 21st Century, it is not only not excusable, it is not acceptable in institutions which should be providing a beacon of equality to the rest of society.

The statistics hammer home the unacceptable reality. In 2016, the Higher Education Authority completed a report that discovered 50pc of lecturer staff in Irish universities was female but only 19pc made professorship. Some 81pc of those who reach the top level in Irish universities are men.

And it is not just at the highest academic levels that this inequality is patent. It's also clearly seen in the disciplines that govern and organise many third-level colleges.

Generations of Irish people were taught that patience is a virtue. It may be time to question that, in certain situations. The fact is that patience can become a vice when it amounts to collaboration in the downgrading of one half of the citizens. More to the point, balance in top leadership positions will not be achieved in our lifetime if we just wait for change to naturally occur.

Achieving gender equality in higher education is one of my key priorities as Minister for Higher Education, and I intend to succeed. Ruffled feathers are a given. But ruffled feathers are frankly irrelevant when it comes to the righting of an obvious and long-standing wrong.

Nor is this simply an equality issue, in the sense of it being a human rights issue. It is important for practical commercial reasons, as well as idealistic reasons.

If, for example, we want to encourage our young female students to remain and perform within STEM subjects - and we do - then the discrimination they see first-hand within our higher-education institutions has to contribute to what's been called the 'leaky pipeline'. When bright young women see that the employment realities or the promotion realities don't match the future being promoted to them, they sensibly shift focus and develop other interests. That's great for the other areas that attract them. Not great for the STEM subjects.

The leaks in the talent pipeline are going to have to be stopped, because the strongest talent pipeline for the future is one which is fully representative of both women and men as the demands of tomorrow's economy require a diverse mix of skills.

My hope is that third-level education looks at the taskforce's advice and welcomes it as a way of achieving a proper reality. Equality in any area shouldn't have to be driven home by force.

Bottom line? This is an opportunity for our higher-education institutions to do the right thing, speedily, willingly and in a way that allows them to set a good example to every other sector of Irish society. As they always should have been doing.

Mary Mitchell O'Connor is Minister of State at the Department of Education with special responsibility for Higher Education

Sunday Independent

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