VICTORIA WHITE: Top jobs have to change so that women, and men, can get a life

The proposal was always going to be crazy but what makes it insulting is its timing, writes Victoria White.

Mary Mitchell O’Connor, the minister of state at the Department of Education with special responsibility for higher education. Picture: Eamonn Farrell

The commitment by Mary Mitchell O’Connor, the minister of state at the Department of Education with special responsibility for higher education, to create 45 women-only professorships in our third level institutions at the cost of €6m per annum comes when these institutions are struggling for their lives.

Funding for each of our precious students has fallen by roughly half since the crash in 2008 and has still not recovered. Our student to teacher ratio, at 20:1, is among the worst in the OECD and puts us in the same league as Turkey, Indonesia, Colombia and India. When it comes to university funding per student we have slipped right down the league and can no longer compete with the many countries which want our best students.

This is an emergency.

It’s true that the QS World University Rankings are a flawed assessment tool but they are the tool which students, teachers and investors use. This year saw yet another catastrophic fall in our leading universities’ places in the rankings: UCC went from 283 to 338, UCD went from 168 to 193, TCD bombed out of the Top 100, going from 88 to 104. Of our third level institutions, only Maynooth and the University of Limerick kept their places.

This matters. Our country needs internationally-attested excellence at third level. We need to keep our best students here, making the contacts which will make them likely to settle and thrive in this country.

We need the best international students and the best teachers.

We may not have much in the way of natural resources but most of us feel we Irish have brains and creativity. It has been vital to our national self-respect, since the days of the round towers and the Book of Kells, that we have genius hubs. Eighty-two percent of those surveyed recently agreed that universities needed more state funding.

Meanwhile, the funding deficit is getting worse because we have what should be an advantage: lots of wonderful children headed for third level. In his report on university funding in 2016, Peter Cassells reckoned that we needed annual increases of €600m by 2021 just to keep pace with our demographics.

In September the Irish Universities’ Association published a charter calling for a funding increase of €220m this year. They laid down the gauntlet to the politicians: “The political community now needs to step up to the challenge and match the ambition and commitment demonstrated by the universities.” What did they get? An increase of €59m in funding in the budget for next year. The Oireachtas committee which was charged with studying Cassells’ report,to make proposals for third level funding, has not reported and Mitchell O’Connor says she doesn’t know when it will. Fianna Fáil’s Thomas Byrne has said he doubts they can reach any consensus on this crucial matter. They are bottling it.

What’s more important to Mitchell O’Connor than the survival of our universities, apparently, is the gender of the top teachers. Her focus is based on claims in a 2016 report on the matter to Government from a committee chaired by Máire Geoghan-Quinn. It includes by way of encouragement the appalling vista of the world’s women working exactly as do the world’s men, which would apparently gain us all US$28 trillion a year, an increase of 26%. Too bad that there would be no-one left to care for anyone on an incinerated planet.

Leave aside the ideological claim that you can deliver “diversity” by appointing women of any background when there are, rightly, nine grounds on which the law forbids discrimination in this country: gender, civil status, family status, sexual orientation, age, religion, disability and ethnicity. How many professors are there of Traveller background, for instance? How many are black or disabled?

Alright, it’s fair to say the pool of applicants typically includes women but does not typically include Travellers or Irish people of colour.

It’s also absolutely fair to say that the top rank of university teachers shows a marked gender imbalance, with 24% of the top jobs held by women while 51% of lecturers are women. This puts us on a par with France and above Switzerland and Germany.

The women’s percentage is slowly increasing but Mitchell O’Connor has set a target of 40% women in the top jobs by 2024, an arbitrary figure and an arbitrary timeline, to which she now wants to adhere by the arbitrary action of creating the women-only positions.

Geoghan-Quinn’s report makes some good recommendations aimed at addressing unfairness due to ingrained expectations and peoples’ tendency to appoint people most like themselves, including training to address unconscious bias. More radically, it suggests a “cascade model” whereby top appointments must mirror the gender balance of the pool of applicants, a policy which is worth trying.

What is most frustrating about Geoghan-Quinn’s report, however, is that it wholly excludes women’s own preferences as a reason why they are poorly represented in top jobs. No, it’s all down to “barriers” put in their way, the “barriers” Mitchell O’Connor was excitedly “tearing down” this week.

Presumably it is the same “barriers” which are in the way of women in the civil service, where they comprise two thirds of the workers and one fifth of secretary generals? And among medics, where they comprise half the graduates but a minority of hospital consultants? And more particularly among surgeons, of whom they comprise 7%, despite comprising 34% of the surgery trainees?

The barriers here are the women themselves. Which is another way of saying the barriers are the jobs.

Many women, particularly mothers, don’t want to put in the hours required in the top jobs.

WHEN the Irish Medical Journal looked at gender balance in top medical jobs in 2013, it reported the “bitter regrets” of older mothers who had sacrificed family time to be consultants. Many of these women said they had dissuaded their daughters from studying medicine.

The ERSI’s Selina McCoy studied the lack of gender balance in top jobs in the civil service last year and came back with the finding that women see their senior colleagues working 12-hour days, working evenings, travelling and deprived of any possibility to work flexibly or part-time and decide it’s a life they don’t want.

McCoy makes the most intelligent proposal on gender balance in top jobs than any I have heard to date: she suggests the jobs should be broken down into sets of tasks which should be allocated differently across different members of staff.

Which is another way of saying that the top jobs have to change so that women, and men, can get a life.

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