Legality of women-only professorships scheme questioned

Officials warned last year that the Irish government’s plan to combat gender inequality in higher education by creating women-only professor positions could be seen as “positive discrimination” and questioned its legality, an Irish Times examination of withheld documents has revealed.

The government is already anticipating a legal challenge, the newspaper said.

Minister for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O'Connor, announcing 45 new academic women-only posts on 11 November last year, said the plan would ensure that 40% of Ireland's professor-level positions would be held be women by 2024.

The plan is significant internationally as it is thought 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, according to three experts in diversity and inclusion in universities, writing jointly in University World News after the scheme was launched.

The Irish Times reported this week that the government sought legal advice after officials in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in April 2018 voiced fears about the legality of offering women-only professorships.

The information has come to light in email exchanges between officials in different departments that were previously withheld under Freedom of Information laws.

Although Department of Education and Skills official William Beausang noted that the approach of posts being filled exclusively by females had been “notably successful” in the Netherlands, officials in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform warned that such a move might be open to a legal challenge.

The head of the Civil Service Human Resource Policy Unit, Lousie McGirr, said the plan seemed more like positive discrimination than positive action and while the latter was legal, the former was not.

She said ring-fencing posts for people of a protected characteristic, in this case female, amounted to positive discrimination, “but you can give preference to an underrepresented characteristic (female), all other things being equal and the candidates being equal on merit”, the Irish Times reported.

The Irish Department of Education and Skills discussed with the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands how its similar scheme had been allowed and were told its female-only posts were introduced there because there was a “serious and persistent backwardness in numbers of women scientists”.

As late as September 2018, the department was still seeking legal clarification on whether the plan – which reportedly will cost €6 million (US$6.8 million) over three years – was legally watertight in Ireland, according to the Irish Times report. But the initiative was given the go ahead in November,

Mitchell O’Connor told the University Times in an interview last year: “I’ll tell you what Ireland needs. Ireland needs equality. Gender equality. No buts, no ifs, no nothings. That’s it. And I also want the best person for the job.”

The action plan on gender equality followed the recommendations of a gender equality task force report that said women have been historically underrepresented in senior positions across the country's universities and technological institutes.

The report said women make up 51% of entry-level teaching jobs in the university sector, but only 24% of professor posts are filled by women and there has never been a female president at any of Ireland’s seven universities.

This problem is not confined to Ireland, however, as only 21% of professorships are held by women across European Union countries.

Tony McMahon, director of diversity and inclusion at Trinity College Dublin, Anne Scott, vice president for equality and diversity at the National University of Ireland Galway, and Colin Scott, vice president for equality, diversity and inclusion at University College Dublin, writing jointly in University World News shortly after the announcement of the women-only posts, said Dutch and German women-only professorial recruitment schemes had preceded this one.

Women-only professorial appointment competitions had also been run in Australian universities. But these were not national schemes across an entire sector, such as this plan.

The three experts said the main argument in favour of such schemes is that historic inequalities are not likely to be corrected quickly or fully without them and a 2016 expert group report had shown that universities are squandering the talented women academics within systems where women are not able to achieve promotion to the top academic grades in equal proportions to men.

Therefore it was right to seek temporary measures 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”.