Women not hallucinating about glass ceilings in Irish universities

Women-only posts plan triggers outrage but figures show deep-seated problem

In an era given to wild overstatement, the words were vanishingly mild. “There’s nothing wrong with women. We are more than capable,” said Dr Micheline Sheehy Skeffington. Meanwhile, a fair proportion of the population was turning puce over the recommendation for gender-specific posts in higher education.

On the social apocalypse scale, the outrage-o-meter is at roughly the same level as that about gender quotas for election candidates. But fear not, Chicken Little, four out of five TDs are still likely to be men. And no one is threatening a heist of the most prestigious jobs in academia. The posts will be new. In any event, Sheehy Skeffington would like to see these merely as a temporary measure – just long enough to change the culture. Outrageous, eh ?

You don’t have to like the miserable idea to support it. For one thing, it forces us to admit that hard work, talent and achievements may never be enough to earn advancement in a certain kind of man’s world. To say this aloud is both risky and humiliating. To do nothing is unconscionable. Yet the figures suggest something is awry. When the other side insists that, all else being equal (or even better than equal on the woman’s side), your failure to advance couldn’t possibly be the fault of the system, madam, the implication is that there is clearly something wrong or delusional about you.

Equality of outcome

One weary gentleman summarised it thus: “As soon as a gender gap is perceived, in whatever area, people jump to the conclusion that it is due to gender bias. No other explanation is needed. But the question has to be asked: how many women applied for these top-level posts in university or in business, on a proportional basis? If few did then it is for other reasons. The aim seems to be to impose equality of outcome whatever the cost.”


For the genuinely fair- and curious-minded, the Gender Action Plan 2018-2020 is available to read online. For a shortcut to a mindset, try skimming the 2014 Equality Tribunal ruling in the case of Dr Sheehy Skeffington, who 10 years ago was applying for promotion to senior lectureship in NUI Galway.

She was one of 32 men and 15 women from across the campus who applied, and then made it on to the shortlist of 23 men and seven women (note the percentages).

By the end of the process, 16 men and one woman had been promoted, not including Sheehy Skeffington – for the fourth consecutive time

Of the successful candidates, one male wasn’t even eligible to apply.

The only one who lacked a PhD, a man, came first. Three males with less than the minimum student contact hours got a higher score in that category than Sheehy Skeffington, who had supervised more PhDs to completion than the lot of them. A female candidate who got by far the most glowing external and internal references came fourth last, a fact the tribunal considered significant enough to mention twice.

The suggestions of the external interviewer were ignored, despite being the only expert in Sheehy Skeffington’s field. The interview board featured only one woman and she was not a designated questioner.

In hard figures, one in two male applicants had a chance of being promoted to senior lecturer in NUIG; for females, the odds were less than one in three. At college lecturer grade, men were in the minority at 40 per cent; in the next grade up, at senior lecturer, they soared to 61 per cent.

Promoted on potential

A few less tangible features were striking. The interview board dealt with the problem of one (successful) male applicant’s low teaching hours by noting his “small number of undergrad lectures”, but adding helpfully, “though this will increase in future”. A classic case, submitted Sheehy Skeffington, of men being promoted on their potential and women being promoted on their past accomplishments.

Where the application form asked candidates to state when they were on maternity or other unpaid leave (to balance their record, apparently), four of the seven shortlisted females listed caring responsibilities of some kind. The three females who did not were the highest-placed women in the competition – including the sole woman who succeeded. All the male applicants left that part blank, which is intriguing at several levels.

The fact that NUIG accepted “unreservedly” the tribunal’s landmark ruling in favour of Dr Sheehy Skeffington (and had to pay her €70,000, the equivalent of a year’s salary) four years ago and that four women contemporaries also won promotion following a High Court settlement this year suggests that women are not hallucinating about glass ceilings.

There has never been a woman president in the Irish university sector.

Yet there is Co Waterford-born Louise Richardson, who became not only the first female principal of the University of St Andrews but the first to become vice-chancellor of Oxford University, which now sits at the top of the Times Higher Education 2019 global rankings. So no, there is nothing wrong with women. Perhaps it helps if you begin your career in the United States, as Prof Richardson did, and work your way back.