Why women-only professorship appointments are needed

When the Irish Government published the highly-anticipated Gender Action Plan 2018-20 earlier this month, it was the proposal for a Government of Ireland Senior Academic Talent Initiative which received most attention, both positive and negative.

While the task force report contained many recommendations, largely building on initiatives already under way to remove barriers to gender equality, the minister for higher education and the Taoiseach (prime minister) chose to give most emphasis to the plan for a women-only appointments process, funding 45 additional professorships over three years.

The introduction of the scheme arises from the conclusion that the measures already under way are operating too slowly, with an increase in the proportion of women holding professorships from 19% to 24% since 2015, though admirable, providing no realistic prospect of achieving the targeted 40% ratio by 2024.

Ireland is not unique, of course, with women facing obstacles to achieving the highest academic rank across the EU 28, with only 21% of professorships held by women overall.

Nor is Ireland unique in adopting radical measures, as Dutch and German women-only professorial recruitment schemes have preceded this. However, this does appear to be the first time a government has established a national scheme of this kind across the entire sector, reflecting both the ambitions of the higher education minister and also the ability of the Irish government to set down norms and procedures for the whole sector.

While one positive aspect of this sectoral approach is that the sector as a whole can move as one and take early advantage of the additional support and funding from the government on this important agenda, the sectoral approach is also an indicator of the relatively low autonomy from government experienced by universities in Ireland.

There are arguments both in favour of and against schemes that consider only women candidates for professorial positions. A starting point is a commitment to equality in Irish legislation which prohibits discrimination on grounds of gender both in employment and more widely. This principle is subject to an exception that permits positive measures to target a group that is protected by the legislation and which is disadvantaged.

Squandering talent

The main argument in favour of such schemes is that historic inequalities are not likely to be corrected quickly or fully without such measures and that such measures are necessary to vindicate the rights to equality of women academics.

Distinctly, as was highlighted in the 2016 report of the expert group led by former European Commissioner Máire Anne Geoghegan-Quinn, the universities are squandering the talent of women academics within systems where women are not able to achieve promotion to the top academic grade in equal proportions to men, due to a variety of impediments – systemic, structural and cultural.

In Ireland a majority of students are women and academic appointments at the more junior lecturer grades are held in about equal proportion between men and women and it has been this way for many years. Measures that enable women to achieve the top academic grade will establish a larger cohort of visible women academic leaders and this role model effect will help to establish a stronger pipeline of talented women towards senior leadership in higher education.

More equal representation of women in senior leadership would give us the best chance of embedding the wider changes required to ensure gender equality across all aspects of higher education and we might, for the first time, see a woman appointed to lead an Irish university.

Discriminatory and unfair

There are a number of central arguments that are generally raised against taking positive measures such as the scheme proposed. First, that they are discriminatory and unfair, and that the wrong of positive discrimination does not appropriately correct the wrong of historic negative discrimination.

Second, that women who are appointed to positions through positive measures may attract stigma on the basis that the competition through which they were appointed was not fully open and they may therefore not merit the appointment – which, implicitly they would not or might not have been given had male candidates been permitted to compete.

Third, that they are short term fixes, that improve the numbers, but that don’t bring about the necessary systemic change. These are all significant arguments which require a response.

As regards the first, it is not inconsistent with the principle of non-discrimination that limited discriminatory measures should be adopted to correct historic discrimination, in order to level the playing field. If one of the key objectives of anti-discrimination measures is to remove inequality, and rules which prohibit discrimination are ineffective, then it is appropriate to apply further permitted and proportionate measures to tackle the problem of inequality.

As regards the second, risks of tainting of appointments in women-only schemes, this can be addressed through ensuring that the appointment processes apply the same criteria and assessments of excellence that apply to every other senior academic appointment that occurs through fully open competition.

This is the significance of the recommendation for the establishment of a national scheme in Ireland which is likely to encourage large numbers of women to apply where research suggests women are generally more cautious than men in putting themselves forward for promotions, and are more likely to do so in situations where there is perceived greater certainty of getting a fair hearing.

With regard to the third point, the rate of progress in increasing the percentage of female professors in our universities, notwithstanding greater urgency in this area in recent years, is still unacceptably slow.

This is the case generally, but it is more acute in a number of particular disciplines. In such situations more radical solutions are required in order to provide the necessary momentum for change, and to ensure that visible and successful female role models are in place to inspire the next wave of female leaders.

Precedents in other sectors

There is plenty of precedent as positive measures in favour of women in sectors where they have been disadvantaged historically have been used both in Ireland and overseas. The Irish parliament, the Oireachtas, has already provided positive measures to support the election of more women parliamentarians in the lower house by providing for financial penalties for political parties that fail to put up at least 30% women candidates for elections (rising to 40% in 2023).

The election of more women to the Dáil, the lower house, from 15% women elected in the 2011 general election to 21% in 2016 is attributed to these measures. Within the Irish civil service senior appointment processes, where male and women candidates are ranked equally the woman candidate is to be preferred.

Women-only professorial appointment competitions have been run in both Dutch and Australian universities.

It is right to seek to correct historic inequalities in promotional opportunities for women academics, with positive measures to boost the proportion of women holding professorships, both on fairness grounds and to further foster the effectiveness and achievements of universities. Such measures are temporary.

It is also right to raise awareness of the issues and of differing views on the issues through discussion and debate.

Once women are equally present among the professoriate, such corrective measures will no longer be required, not only for quantitative reasons but also because the achievement of gender equality in the top academic ranks will be a key factor in establishing academic cultures in which women can thrive equally with men, which, currently, they demonstrably do not.

Tony McMahon is director of diversity and inclusion, Trinity College Dublin. Anne Scott is vice president for equality and diversity, National University of Ireland Galway. Colin Scott is vice president for equality, diversity and inclusion, University College Dublin, Ireland.