Does belonging to the female sex in 21st century Ireland constitute disadvantage, asks Margaret Hickey.

Minister of state at the Department of Education, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, thinks that progress towards gender equality at the higher levels of academia is too slow.

Accordingly, she is to set up a task force to consider, among other strategies, the imposition of a gender quota. A gender quota would be a quick fix. But the right answer, politically speaking, must be based on the right reasoning.

If it doesn’t add up in terms of sound practice and fairness, it will only store up future problems.

The winners, women, could very quickly become the losers.

The big thing about landing any honour or promotion is that it comes to you fair and square.

The argument for positive discrimination is strong at the entry levels of education. Children who, for whatever reason, are disadvantaged need help and support to set a secure foundation for the next stage of learning.

If and when their attainments level with those from more privileged backgrounds, any further intervention is of questionable merit. It is no longer about fair play but about social engineering.

Does belonging to the female sex in 21st century Ireland constitute disadvantage? We are fast moving on from the era when certain subjects and jobs were considered off limits for girls. The relative level of attainment of girls and boys across Leaving Certificate subjects is a good indicator of changing attitudes. Girls outperform boys in most subjects, including science subjects, though boys have the edge in mathematics but the margin of difference is slight — 74% of boys who took higher level Maths in 2016, achieved grade C or higher as against 68% of girls.

On the other hand, the differentials between the sexes in language subjects and English is reversed and marginally more pronounced — 79% of girls who took the higher level English paper achieved A, B or C against 72% of boys. Yet no one is reading any particular significance into these figures.

Statistics, of course, are never straightforward and it must be acknowledged that far fewer girls take the higher course in Maths.

Again there is a reverse, though less marked, gender imbalance when it comes to candidates taking higher level English and Irish. If girls are underperforming by not pitching higher where Maths is concerned, why is there no issue about boys’ relative lack of enthusiasm for literature and languages? Leveling is about getting the balance right, not tilting one group in the direction of the other.

There can be little doubt of the value of literature and language study in refining both our thinking and our feeling and the classic understanding of education would have placed the humanities in the Stem subjects category. Not so today, as education becomes more and more about training for the world of work.

There is little need to wonder why. ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ Languages are all fine and good and useful, as well as broadening the mind, but who can argue against the superior market power of the new languages of computer programming ? Just as Latin and Greek gave way to French and German, Java and Javascript have now taken over as the great portals to global opportunity.

Utilitarianism is not the only force driving the campaign to promote or, depending how you see it, push women into fuller participation at all levels of working life. It is a significant one, however. The utilitarian reasons make sense in respect of demographic projections. The economic expansion needed to fund our public services and most particularly our underfunded pension provision demands maximum participation of women as well as men in the workforce.

Our demographics, like those of most of the developed world, are going in the wrong direction though it must be said that demographics in an age of migration is an even more uncertain science than is normally is.

As things stand, however, the imbalance between the working cohort and pensioners is heading towards unsustainability. So, from the current political and economic perspective, every possible stimulus to economic growth makes sense. More jobs, equals higher tax take. That means bigger government budgets but it also means bigger government.

We already see big government in Ms Mitchell O Connor’s drive to contrive gender balance up the ranks of academia. The relatively small disparities between the sexes in Leaving Certificate performance is carried through to the lower ranks of university schools where the gender balance is roughly 50/50. However, the gender gap increases dramatically as you progress up the academic hierarchy. Across Irish universities, only 19% of professors are women.

Assuming this is all down to patriarchal misogyny is a bit facile. Perhaps women simply prioritise, or at least prize, others things besides work?

At some point along the career trajectory, it looks like women, or many of them, are opting out of competitive advancement.

If this is so, then it might be a good idea to consider their reasons respectfully and not just assume they are acting under some sort of duress or impeded by some sort of disadvantage. Should human needs and womens’ own perceptions of what is best for them and their families be subjected to economic imperatives?

Or ideological ones? If an individual woman feels she is discriminated against on gender grounds, are not the labour relations machinery of the State adequate to defend her? There are many other grounds on which either a man or a woman may feel discriminated against including religion, political affiliation, and race, and if the machinery in place is not robust enough to protect them all, then that is the thing that needs fixing.

Positive discrimination and gender quotas at the higher levels of professions and academic life is highly problematic. When it comes to direction of university schools and centres of research, it is in the public interest that appointments are made on the basis of merit and merit alone.

Likewise, when individuals find themselves sitting in front of a female heart surgeon or oncologist, they want to know they were the best applicants for the job, not fourth or fifth on the list.

What next, Mary Mitchell O’Connor? Gender quotas for the Nobel prize?


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