Academic alleges lack of promotion was gender discrimination

Dr Eleanor O’Higgins asks High Court to direct Labour Court to reconsider rejection of claim

Dr Eleanor O’Higgins has alleged a failure to promote her to the rank of professor in the School of Law and Business in University College Dublin amounted to gender discrimination. Photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times

Dr Eleanor O’Higgins has alleged a failure to promote her to the rank of professor in the School of Law and Business in University College Dublin amounted to gender discrimination. Photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times

Thu, Oct 24, 2013, 18:40

A senior female academic has alleged a failure to promote her to the rank of professor in the School of Law and Business in University College Dublin amounted to gender discrimination.

Dr Eleanor O’Higgins has asked the High Court to direct the Labour Court to reconsider its rejection of that claim.

Of the 13-member committee who considered Dr Eleanor O’Higgins’s second application for promotion to professor in 2007, 12 of those were men, her counsel Mark Connaughton SC told Mr Justice John Cooke today.

Her promotion was recommended both by a committee of the school of business and law and external assessors but ultimately refused by the promotions committee known as UCAATP, counsel added.

While she was denied promotion in 2006 and 2007, three men, two in the school of business and one in the school of law, were promoted professors.

The President of UCD chairs UCAATP and appoints six of its members, with the remaining six elected by UCD lecturers, he outlined. The committee comprises UCD professors and two external experts.

Dr O’Higgins disputes the committee’s findings that she failed to meet the objective standards required for promotion, and contends her experience and ability either matched or was superior to others promoted.

The Labour Court failed to properly analyse evidence in that regard and/or to address her claim of an “inherent bias” against women in UCD such that they would not be appointed onto UCAATP, she claims.

Dr O’Higgins retired after 2007, but has since resumed employment with UCD on foot of a fixed term contract. She worked in UCD since 1988 and was a senior lecturer in the school of business and law since 1993.

She is challenging the manner in which the Labour Court decided the rejection of her application for promotion did not constitute gender discrimination, and wants orders directing it to reconsider her case.

In opposing the proceedings, UCD contends there was no error in the Labour Court ruling and denies any gender discrimination in the treatment of Dr O’Higgins’s application for promotion.

Opening the case, Mr Connaughton said his client failed in both 2006 and 2007 to be promoted when promotions were being offered. After the 2007 rejection, she brought a complaint of gender discrimination which was rejected by an equality officer and later by the Labour Court.

Counsel argued the Labour Court’s conclusion that there was no gender discrimination involved an error in law, particularly where that court had earlier found three matters sufficient to raise an inference of gender discrimination.

The Labour Court voiced concern UCAATP comprised 12 men and one woman, which was “very much out of kilter with established practice”, and it had made no written record of its deliberations other than its actual decision, he said. The Labour Court was also concerned promotion was refused despite being recommended by a UCD council and external assessors.

His complaint was about how the Labour Court proceeded after that, he said. Having heard evidence on behalf of Dr O’Higgins and UCAATP, it concluded there was no evidence of a discriminatory disposition on the part of UCAATP and found no gender discrimination. It was his case the Labour Court “just did not do its job” in terms of how it assessed the evidence and applied the law.

Cliona Kimber BL, for UCD, argued a university professor is “a gold standard” and UCD had made clear professors represent a university internationally. Such appointments involved a qualitative judgment of one’s peers as to whether one had reached that standard.

Dr O’Higgins was “somewhat subjective in her view of her own superiority and the inferiority of others” who were promoted, counsel said. While she had argued one of those promoted to professor in the same school had inferior qualifications to her, her “low opinion” of others was not borne out by the evidence.

The Labour Court had all the relevant material before it when it reached its decision and UCAATP had clearly recorded its decision refusing promotion on grounds including lack of evidence of a substantial volume of publications of high impact and quality, counsel said. It was also relevant the equality tribunal rejected her claims of gender discrimination.

The Labour Court had also heard evidence of females in UCD doing better than men in various other promotions, counsel added. While UCD had supported her promotion, UCAATP’s overturning of college recommendations was not uncommon for both male and female candidates.

The hearing continues.