A Gender Equality Task Force has recommended mandatory gender quotas for the appointment of senior academics in NUI Galway to combat a legacy of discrimination against women. While concern has been expressed about the use of quotas, it is evident that a ‘silent gender quota’ has been in operation in NUIG for some time. Where an institution has systemised discrimination, then that system serves to operate to the benefit of men – in effect a quota.
The first issue with the proposed quota system is actually its narrow focus. It only addresses senior academic appointments. There is over-representation of women in the most precarious academic roles within NUIG, and in the administration and technical sections. These staff groups are not to benefit from the proposed quota system.
Secondly, quotas can only go some way towards addressing a specific problem. What NUIG needs is a long-term, multifaceted programme to effect a change in its institutional culture. Culture change requires the commitment and dedication of all, particularly those charged with management responsibilities. Indications to-date however would not inspire confidence that those people charged with running NUIG have the foresight and courage to deliver the culture change that would push NUIG up to the front of the class as a fair and equal campus.
President Michael D Higgins recently stated that one of the core functions of a university is to foster a “capacity to dissent” and to “allow for the rejection of dominant ideologies”. The exposure of pervasive gender discrimination at NUIG brings such a vision into sharp focus. In particular, it lights up NUIG’s apparent unwillingness to bring key voices, dissenting and otherwise, to the table to address the dominant, and long-standing, ideology of discrimination that resulted in the eddying maelstrom of negative publicity.
In May 2014 Mary Dempsey won her case for gender discrimination against NUIG (DECE2014- 039). The Equality Officer awarded the maximum compensation (€81,000) after finding, among other things, that “she was asked to work during pregnancy-related sick-leave and also during her maternity leave”. Micheline Sheehy Skeffington won her well-publicised case later that same year in which the equality officer described the promotion process as “ramshackle”.
On foot of the Sheehy Skeffington case, five further women academics have instigated legal proceedings against NUIG claiming gender discrimination in promotion. The ongoing attempt to defend these cases appears to constitute a lose-lose approach for NUIG. It is incomprehensible and unacceptable to many staff that these women are not promoted on the merits of the Sheehy Skeffington case. It was also discovered that a pre-employment questionnaire required women to answer intrusive and invalid questions about their breasts and menstrual cycles. This was only withdrawn after press exposure.
The statistics reveal a fuller picture of the institutional discrimination in NUIG. Women make up a mere 12% of Established Professors, 10% of Associate Professors, and 32% of Senior Lecturers. The percentages of women occupying the most precarious grades is of equal concern. Women make up 73% of University Teacher grade and 66% of fixed-term Lecturers. In administration, men occupy about 20% of roles, but women account for 95% of the lowest grades and men occupy 45% of senior grades.
All of these are quantifiable public manifestations of the problems within NUIG. The stated experience of the University’s staff is perhaps most illuminating. NUIG was obliged to undertake a staff survey as part of an unsuccessful bid for external accreditation. This report, published in January 2016, noted that both male and female respondents described the University’s culture as, “male-dominated”. “misogynist”, “aggressive’”, “toxic”, “bullying”, representing “a culture of sexism”, “cronyism”, and an “old boys club”.
In this highly charged context, SIPTU members attempted to voice dissent and challenge the dominant ideology by launching an equality campaign. This received a mandate from the membership calling for the appointment of an “external independent expert(s) to conduct an independent equality review of all aspect of the University’s activities, including its policies and practices and their implementation”. NUIG’s response was an outright refusal of constructive engagement with the union. This resulted in a referral of the matter to the Work Relations Commission (WRC). In response to the WRC’s subsequent call to conciliation, NUIG, a public body funded by the taxpayer, refused.
Instead of an independent review NUIG management appointed its own Task Force. In response to an open consultation call the task force received a mere 38 submissions from a total of 2,310 staff and over 17,000 students. Its report acknowledges the evidence of gender inequality throughout NUIG, and proposes a series of valid actions. However, no one is held accountable for the culture of inequality. Responsibility for the majority of the actions falls to one person, the new Vice President for Equality and Diversity, who has yet to take up her post.
Dr Deirdre Curran and Dr Shivaun Quinlivan are members of SIPTU equality sub-committee.
By Deirdre Curran and Shivaun Quinlivan