This November marks the second anniversary of my successful gender equality case at the Equality Tribunal against NUI Galway for its failure to appoint me to the post of Senior Lecturer. It was hailed as a landmark case and should have been a call to arms, not just for NUI Galway, but for all third-level institutions. However, the awakening is slow and I doubt that much has changed on the ground – or in attitudes amongst university management.
Currently, many staff in NUI Galway are disillusioned and afraid. Few staff feel able to challenge the authorities. Many are in precarious posts or worried they won’t be promoted. Some staff, I gather, have been reprimanded for speaking out. Fear has filtered through to the students. Recently a society was told it could not display images of Jim Browne, the NUI Galway President in its ‘Mr Browne’s Boys’ cartoon T-shirts at a table supporting five women lecturers pursuing similar litigation. Last April a cartoon exhibition to raise funds and awareness about the five women was booked on campus by the Students Union, but was taken down by Security in the middle of the night.
My case was a landmark case partly because, despite being in the public service, universities have a lot of autonomy, as they should. However, this has led to a lack of transparency in processes such as the promotion and appointment of academics. This has in turn led to an abuse, or perceived abuse, of power. The universities have been getting away with this for a long time now.
However, change comes slowly because university management is not answerable to any board of trustees or shareholders. The governing bodies seem powerless or unwilling to effect change. Ireland has an appalling international record for gender equality in academia. It has been ranked second worst in Europe after Malta for its Glass Ceiling Index in academia. Irish third-level institutions have a lot of catching up to do.
The facts were stark in NUI Galway when I took my case in 2009. The proportion of successful applicants was stunningly different for men and women. 50% of male candidates were successful compared to the 6.7% of female candidates who were successful (see Table 1). Summing up twelve points in my favour, the Equality Tribunal ruling highlighted that “perhaps the most significant frailty in the respondent’s [NUI Galway’s] rebuttal” was that in all four recent rounds of promotion to Senior Lecturer combined, men had a one in two and women less than a one in three chance of being promoted. One successful man had not even been eligible to apply.
I donated my €70,000 award to five other women who, despite being fully deserving of promotion, had been unsuccessful. Their course of action is far more difficult, with only the High Court as an option because the Equality Tribunal deadline was long past. What I find extraordinary is that the university, instead of conceding errors were made, has chosen to spend large sums of taxpayers’ money fighting these women in the courts through an on-going, protracted and emotionally draining, to say nothing of financially stressful, legal wrangle.
The Equality Tribunal ruling specified that NUI Galway should send a report to what is now the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission within 12 months of the ruling. I recently got hold of this and am stunned at what took them 13 months to deliver. It comprises two parts, the larger part being an appendix. The first part, three pages long, sets the tone in stating that “a review had already been underway” but fails to specify that this ‘review’ was actually completed in 2011, three years before the Equality Tribunal ruling and is in fact referred to in the ruling.
The first part goes on to repeat the recommendations from that report and devotes one page to the recommendations for the 2013/14 round of promotions, initiated a year before the ruling. No reference is made to the fact that 20 of the candidates deemed suitable but not promoted in that round appealed and that only 18% of female candidates were promoted compared to 35% of male candidates. The consultant’s report commissioned on the back of these appeals is not available even under Freedom of Information (FOI).
There was a burst of outrage in the university on foot of my successful case and the action taken by the five other women. The injustice to the five women was immediately raised at the NUI Galway Údarás (Governing Body). I understand the discussion was heated. However, the minutes of that elevated body are only available under FOI where, as part of the process, any useful information has been redacted. Several heated meetings of the NUI Galway Academic Council, that comprises professors, deans and heads of school, and so is overwhelmingly male, resulted in nothing. It was told it was powerless to change matters.
Large numbers of students joined the campaign to support the five women, horrified to learn that they had not been promoted. “I am joining the campaign because [name of one of the five women] is the best lecturer I’ve ever had” was a common refrain. The Students Union and both staff unions gave their full support and 26 student societies signed up in solidarity to the campaign. This support continues.
What has happened since? A task force was established with much public fanfare and it delivered its final report in May 2016. This was hard-hitting, if limited, since it did not address the position of the five women or focus on non-academic staff, where matters are even worse.
The recommendations of the task force are not faring particularly well. It recommended that 50% of the “major influential” committees should be chaired by women by 2018. However, College Deans (all men) chair such committees and three of them were recently replaced by three more men. The task force suggested a cascade system of promotion. This is being watered down. Although 52% of lecturers are women, only 40% and not 52% of those promoted are required to be women, according to Equality Manager Aoife Cooke.
A new Vice President for Equality and Diversity has been appointed with a starting salary of €106,000 per annum. She may bring about some change, but I have always queried the necessity for this new post that costs more than it would to promote the five women. Sadly, the new Vice President appears to be focusing not on results but on the message that “NUI Galway is no worse than any other university”. This sums up the university’s concern. Image supersedes staff welfare. They are even planning to apply for an Athena Swan award, that recognises advancement of gender equality in universities, while continuing to fight the five women in the Courts. NUI Galway is actually worse, much worse, than others, as HEA figures show.
The Higher Education Authority set up an expert group on gender issues and its report, published last June, includes gendered statistics for Higher Education Institutions. This year’s rankings show NUI Galway, with 21% female senior staff (Professors and Senior Lecturers) to be a clear 6% lower than the next in line, UCC with 27%. These rankings, however, are never referred to and other rankings don’t include gender balance in their metrics. One can only hope there will be competition to avoid being bottom of the list in the rankings, thus bringing about at least some real improvements for female academics.
By Micheline Sheehy Skeffington