The gender thing

So are we making progress, or are we going backwards? Do we even understand what is happening regarding gender equality?

Why am I asking these questions? Because over the past week or so a debate has been raging in political circles as to whether the obvious gender gap in politics can be closed a bit through quotas in candidate selection. Quotas have been toyed with as an idea in some circles, notably in Ireland by Fine Gale leader Enda Kenny (but without much support from within his own party). Now the Irish Times has conducted a survey of current female parliamentarians to ask them what they thought, and 14 out of 23 (yes, we only have 23, and that’s both Houses) were against introducing quotas. One even thought the idea was ‘insulting to women’.

Actually, the gender issue has become hugely complex. If we look at leading positions in politics (actually, not just leading positions), business, even education, women are scandalously under-represented. But when we look at the number of those with higher qualifications and degrees, the picture is reversed, and women are increasingly outperforming men. You would expect to see this reflected in gradual changes in the composition of what one might call the national leadership circle, but it is not the case, and if anything the trend is in the other direction.

So it seems to me that two (rather different) things need to be addressed. First, we need to be careful that young men do not disproportionately become educationally disenfranchised, not least because if we don’t address this we may be building up serious social problems. And secondly, we need to take far more radical steps to remove the glass ceiling for women. In politics, this could be tackled in a number of ways, with the crazy working practices perhaps being the first target. But I doubt that a proper balance can be attained any time soon without quotas of some sort or other. We live in a society that does not yet see women as natural political leaders, tho0ugh some (and in particular the current President and her predecessor) have perhaps been able to make some difference. RThis needs radical treatment, and I tend to believe that quotas are perfectly reasonable as an interim measure.

And just in case somebody in academic circles thinks that universities are so much better, think again – women make up the majority of lectureship positions, but only a small proportion of the holders of senior posts are women. And again, there is no significant trend visible right now that would indicate that things are improving. And there hasn’t even been one woman university president.

Rather than have all this as an issue that everyone discusses but that never really changes, we should accept that it is time for action. Real action. Quotas.

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13 Comments on “The gender thing”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Everything in Ireland comes back to property, more properly the family home. And while it takes two incomes to afford such a building you can remove all the glass ceilings, slates or thatch you like and it will not make a ha’p’orth of difference. The flexibility for women to cut their own path outside the home depends totally on the ability to be flexible within it. Something that tends to work until the kids arrive and then you hear the whine that daycare has eaten more than one income.

  2. Kelly Says:

    The statistics in Irish HE clearly show how poorly represented women are in senior positions in universities (the worst in Europe), and therefore it is hard not to conclude that over the years women academics have been discriminated against. There are many, often subtle, ways in which this discrimination occurs and over time it adds up to a situation in which there are so few women in senior management posts or at professorial level that it becomes necessary to change the whole culture of the institution.

    I’m sure the thought of quotas would be unpalatable to many senior women academics who know that initially there will be lots of negative perceptions of the women who ‘made it’ because they were given ‘special’ consideration, but quotas have worked in other contexts as part of affirmative action initiatives. While I recognise it would be difficult in a university to enforce a ‘quota’ for promotions of women to senior lectureship (the move from lectureship to senior lectureship is where most women hit the glass ceiling), it would be possible to send out a stronger message that it will be unacceptable for the panel to recommend promotions for a hugely disproportionate number of male applicants against female applicants. Similarly, everyone in a university that makes a decision about research funding, sabbatical leave, promotions and so on needs to be aware that their decision might have an impact on opportunities for women to succeed, and they should be accountable for these decisions in terms of equal opportunities for women. Then all the other barriers against women can start to be tackled (e.g. lack of mentorship, possible slower rates of publication, higher levels of pastoral responsibilities, and actual exhaustion from fighting the battles on all fronts and feeling like giving up each time another set back comes along . . . or is that just me . . . ;-).

    • iainmacl Says:

      Just to add to Kelly’s point (we’re currently working on a research project on this very issue) the HE statistics are truly shocking and something really does need to be done to stop the situation from getting even worse. I think that in many cases there is a lack of awareness of the scale of the problem and when presented with the data (particularly in comparisons with other countries – although across all of Europe the disproportionality is still a major issue)- there is a genuine initial shock. The question is what should be done and to tackle the issue quickly forms of affirmative action are perfectly legitimate as a temporary measure.

      In terms of politics, when the Scottish Parliament was established the gender issue was one that was considered seriously and was part of the rationale for having a regularised working week, with a structure that scheduled votes (‘Decision Time’) and other stages of debate in regular time slots within the working day; the provision of creche facilities, etc. The working practices mean that there are no late night debates or frantic gathering in of representatives for crucial votes, etc. The effect has been far greater female participation, but also a better life balance for all members as well as easier access to elected representatives, because the day in which they are present in their constituencies is also scheduled and part of the standard week. The Dáil really could learn from this type of approach and it would certainly help improve public perception.

      There is still more to be done though, with 43 (33.3%)) female MSPs in the Scottish Parliament, Scotland is ranked 8 th within the EU for female representation. Sweden (surprise!) has the highest proportion with 45.3% female members of Parliament.

      • Vincent Says:

        ’til about 30 there is a vast slave labour component about HE. This might be mitigated if as with the Dr’s they could project huge earning soon after.

  3. James Conran Says:

    Why don’t “crazy working practices” deter men from participating in politics? Clearly one part of the problem is that women who want to be both mothers and TDs are going to need extremely supportive husbands/partners willing to sacrifice their careers to some degree. This kind of husband seems to be harder to find than that kind of wife!

    In any case I don’t think politics is ever going to be a normal job from a work practice point of view (nor am I sure that’s desirable). Regular voting times and a creche (actually I think Leinster House already has a virtually unused creche) aren’t going to make much difference, especially since TDs don’t spend most of their time on parliamentary business.

    I’m on balance opposed to quotas for the usual reasons, but one strategy that should be considered is a simple one: conscious head-hunting of strong female candidates by parties. I don’t think there’s much evidence that the electorate is reluctant to elect women, the blockage seems to be at the party nomination stage.

    • Al Says:

      I dont understand how anyone with talent could enter into the political realm.
      Joining the party making enough friends to get a council nomination, win or loose, repeat for national elections, win or loose, look for senate seat…
      Tis alot of fudge to eat…
      I stand by my original statement!
      Takes determination, repels talent.

  4. Jilly Says:

    Of course, at the moment the glass ceiling is gender neutral in HE, because of the promotions freeze. Which may be the only positive spin which can be put on it!

  5. kevin denny Says:

    I refer to differences between males & females as sex differences since, well, thats what they are & “gender” is so coy (not to say inaccurate, some languages have 16 or 20 genders).
    Anyway, one of the consequences of the desire to reduce sex discrimination is having a woman on every interview board. I don’t know if this make a difference to the outcome: I was once interviewed by an all (2) female panel & it didn’t bother me. However a result of all this is that the few female professors are constantly being press-ganged onto interview boards, something which at least some of them find quite a chore.

  6. colummccaffery Says:

    The usual objections to quotas are that some “right” person won’t be selected because a woman will be preferred or that it will be unfair to a particular man. These might make some sense if we were talking about 50% in a situation not far off that. The reality is that participation rates are often so ludicrously small that very modest quotas could make a significant difference.

    Let’s take the selection of Dáil candidates. Now, while anything other than about 50/50 is odd, a conservative proposal would be that in a constuency in which a party runs two candidates, one should be a woman.

    Did I hear howls?

    Ok, how about the following? In a constituency in which a party runs three candidates, one should be a woman?

    Frankly, anyone howling now is opposed to women candidates.

  7. James Conran Says:

    “anything other than about 50/50 is odd”

    I don’t know the exact figure but I would guess that considerably more than 50% of the full-time work force are male. Of course this varies greatly from occupation to occupation, but why should the female proportion of full time politicians be expected to be higher than the female proportion of full time everything else? It’s right to focus on the supply side (i.e. eliminate obstacles to female participation) but I think the demand side might also explain part of the problem (i.e. less women than men want to be politicians). Admittedly these things aren’t strictly separate (what being a politician entails is a variable, and one that will influence who wants to do it). Anyone know of any data comparing male/female interest in politics and voting rates?

    “anyone howling [against a quota of one woman where three candidates are being run by a party in a constituency] is opposed to women candidates”

    According to the Irish Times this would make most of our current female TDs “opposed to women candidates”.


    • James,
      Yes, odd! A predominantly male workforce would be odd too. If one were recruiting, say, engineers, a reasonable outcome over time would be that one’s staff of engineers would reflect the proportion of engineers who are women. If one were recruiting staff where the educational requirement were, say, leaving cert, a reasonable outcome over time would be 50/50. Any other outcomes would require a special effort!

      Yes again, if a woman TD expressed support for greater numbers of women candidates and then declined to support a proposal so modest as a 1 in 3 quota per party in constituencies where the party intended to run 3 candidates, I would not take her support seriously.

      • James Conran Says:

        It seems arbitrary and unfair to make belief in quotas (whether 1 in 3 or 1 in 2 or any other ratio) the benchmark of seriousness in this regard just because you happen to be strongly in favour of them, but how and ever…

        On the question of the wider workforce you seem to be placing all the explanatory burden on employers’ discriminatory hiring practices but even though most graduates are female, many women “drop out” of the full time workforce when they become mothers. Clearly institutional aspects of the labour market (most obviously maternity and paternity leave regimes) influence these decisions but there is also still a strong cultural (some would argue biological) propensity of women to be more likely to sacrifice career for family than men (not that working mothers are less committed to their children of course).


        • James,
          The size of the quota DOES matter. It is entirely sensible to call into question the seriousness of someone who opposes a minor reform. Yes, I guess there are people who would erect a principle but then there’s no point in talking.

          Re your 2nd point: Not guilty again. The recruiter is not being asked to achieve anything very much in anything like the short term.


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