University criticised for discrimination of female staff

One of the country’s top universities has been heavily criticised for discriminating against female staff by denying them promotions and favouring male academics.

The Equality Tribunal said NUI Galway’s interview process for staff seeking promotion was “ramshackle”, its attitude towards female staff’s maternity leave “unjustified”; and its overlooking of weaknesses in male staff’s CVs “worrying”.

Botanist Dr Micheline Sheehy Skeffington, who took the case against her employers for refusing to promote her in 21 years, has won her right to promotion and €70,000 in damages.

NUI Galway will not appeal the ruling, saying: “The university accepts unreservedly the decision of the Equality Tribunal and will take immediate steps to implement the tribunal’s findings.

“The university very much regrets the distress caused to Dr Sheehy Skeffington in this matter.”

The decision, which will apply Dr Sheehy Skeffington’s promotion retrospectively to 2009, comes too late to boost her career as she took early retirement in September.

She said she was nevertheless delighted with the ruling.

“I have struck a blow for all female academics so that Irish universities will now be forced to address their shocking discrimination against women in the promotion to senior academic posts.”

She said she also had honoured the memory of her grandmother, suffragette Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, who had been jailed in 1913 after a protest at Dublin Castle.

“During my case, which was very unpleasant as the university fought it all the way, I would think of Hanna, who lost her job as a lecturer at Rathmines College on her release from prison for suffrage activity. With that legacy, I thought the least I could do was taken on NUI Galway.”

Dr Sheehy Skeffington, a lecturer in botany and plant science, joined NUI Galway as a junior lecturer in 1980 and was promoted to college lecturer in 1990 but all her applications for further promotion after that failed.

She took her case to the Equality Tribunal after her last application in 2009. Only one of the 17 successful applicants in that promotions round was a woman.

NUI Galway rejected her claims of discrimination but in its ruling, the Equality Tribunal found that the university’s promotion process “fell short of best practice”.

It found there was no training for interviewers in employment or equality law and that when an external interviewer asked to see the marking scheme for assessing applicants he was ignored, a response the tribunal said was “discourteous as well as highlighting the ramshackle approach to the process”.

Three successful male candidates had significantly less than the minimum requirement for contact hours with students and yet got a higher score for teaching than Dr Sheehy Skeffington who had supervised more PhDs to completion than any of the other candidates.

The male candidate who came first in the interviews did not even have a PhD.

Staffing statistics throughout the university were also damning, showing men had a one in two chance of being promoted but women has less than a one in three chance.

It was also found that the university could not justify seeking details of maternity leave and other unpaid leave.

All the men left this section of the application form blank as did the only successful female candidate and the two other highest placed women.

The other women each declared a period of maternity leave, adoptive leave, parental leave or caring duties leave.

The tribunal’s investigating officer said: “I can not escape the conclusion that the majority of female applicants drawing attention to their caring responsibilities outside the workplace disadvantaged them against the male applicants..”

NUI Galway said it had already made changes.

“The university is confident that its current promotion process affords equality of opportunity and that its promotion procedures are applied in a robust fashion.”


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