Previous posts in this blog – including a guest post – have pointed to the problem of gender equality in Irish universities, particularly in relation to career development and promotion. The Higher Education Authority has now appointed a panel, to be chaired by former EU Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, to undertake a review into gender profiles and equality across the sector. The panel is due to report within a year.
Posted tagged ‘gender equality’
As is well known, in many university courses women now make up the majority of the student body. But when you get to academic lecturing staff, in the UK only 39 per cent are women. The proportion of senior academic posts filled by women is smaller still. There is still clearly a job to be done in higher education to ensure that there are no barriers that keep women from pursuing successful careers to the highest level in universities.
In this particular debate, one other part of the system is now coming under increasing scrutiny: university governance. There was some evidence that until recently university governing bodies were finding it difficult to achieve any kind of gender balance. When the panel that I chaired reviewed higher education governance in Scotland in 2012, we recommended that 40 per cent of all members of governing bodies should be women, and that institutions should work towards that aim.
The Herald newspaper has now looked more closely at gender distribution on university governing bodies, and found that there has been some improvement in Scotland, at least to the extent that a number of higher education institutions now have female chairs.
More generally, it is true to say that gender imbalance is not as severe as it used to be; but it is still far from perfect. Universities need to continue to address this issue, not least so as to ensure that women (and indeed men) do not end up in single-sex ghettoes in the labour market. A significant part of getting this right is to ensure that there are role models for both sexes: male teachers, female engineers, male therapists, female computer programmers. And of course, women as university heads and chairs.
Is feminism to blame for social inequality and poverty? Do women in employment ‘deprive’ working class males of opportunities? According to British Universities Minister, David Willetts, the answer is yes. In a briefing on social mobility the Minister suggested that feminism was perhaps probably the ‘single biggest factor’ in preventing mobility and causing entrenched inequality.
For readers who might not immediately follow this argument, I could perhaps explain it like this. Well educated people tend to be more mobile and have higher pay. If you have a society in which men receive education and then seek to better themselves, they can avail of whatever opportunities there are out there in the labour market. The opportunities are greatest if their wives stay at home and concern themselves with the household. If however the women are also educated and enter the labour market, then the wealthiest couples will hoover up the opportunities. Wealthy and particularly well-educated men meet and marry similar women, and together they will take the available high status jobs, leaving poorer males to make do with the less interesting and rewarding employment. Social division is perpetuated.
Willetts summed it all up like this:
‘The feminist revolution in its first round effects was probably the key factor. Feminism trumped egalitarianism. It is not that I am against feminism, it’s just that is probably the single biggest factor.’
There is something curiously old-fashioned about all this. I don’t just mean the attitude to women (elsewhere in this he insists he is all in favour of women’s rights), but the apparent belief that the labour market supplies a precisely limited number of jobs unrelated to the economic activity of its members. So for example, it is well established that in general migrants don’t displace indigenous jobs: they enter the labour market and their industry generates more jobs again.
There is also something extraordinarily odd about the idea that we must choose between women’s working opportunities and social equality, and that we cannot have both; that one kind of equality can only be achieved at the expense of another. Apart from the qualms of principle that some of us might have around this, there really isn’t any respectable evidence to back it up.
The Minister has been attacked from all sides for his argument. This has prompted him to produce a further explanation – not a retraction but an elaboration:
‘I am not blaming anyone but I am explaining something in terms of why inequality has widened. I am not trying to reverse the opportunities for women, rather I am drawing attention to the consequences when you are measuring household incomes. I think it is just a statement of truth.’
It is not easy to see where David Willetts wants us to go with this; or more importantly, where he proposes to go with it himself. There is a dangerous hint here of an idea that women’s education is not a good thing. That may not be what he actually believes, but in that case why has he raised this issue at all? In any case, there is abundant evidence that growing the labour pool raises productivity and encourages economic growth.
This seems to be an example of a man who likes exploring where his hypotheses take him. But in his case his conclusions could turn our world upside down and roll back decades of progress in gender policy and rights. The time to stop this kind of thinking is now.
Yesterday I published a post here in which I suggested that gender quotas could make a useful contribution to greater equality in the political world. I mentioned this also on Twitter, and between the tweets and offline emails I received over the past 24 hours I can tell readers that the more vocal responses were overwhelmingly negative; some were in fact quite rude. One kind emailer even suggested that ‘Irishmen [sic] had not fought for freedom all those years ago to have it taken away by gender quotas’. Several tweeters suggested that people should be elected and appointed in politics ‘on merit alone’ rather than on the basis of their gender (which was more or less the point made by Lucinda Creighton that I referred to in my last post).
I won’t bother with the fighting Irishmen in this context. But the ‘merit’ argument is worth a brief response. It is based on the assumption that people make choices, whether in the polling booth or in the Taoiseach’s or Prime Minister’s office, based on objective criteria. From this it follows that, as a majority of the working population is now female, but only 20 per cent of senior management positions are held by women, women objectively and on merit are less well equipped to lead. It also follows that the four women Enda Kenny appointed to junior ministerial posts are all less qualified than the 13 men appointed to cabinet.
In fact, and with apologies for the blunt language, the merit argument is a lot of codswallop. When we make choices about whom we elect or appoint, we are all weighed down by the cultural inheritance and the conscious and subconscious prejudices we have acquired. Nobody is totally objective. Right now we are living in a society that is getting some really important things badly wrong. It is allowing young men to become disengaged, from education in particular, and thereby risking the development of a disoriented and dysfunctional male class; while at the same time holding back women from senior leadership roles. This particular cocktail of discrimination and neglect is one of the biggest dangers we now face as a society.
There are many things we need to do to address all this, but gender quotas may be one sensible, though temporary, measure to create a fairer and more viable society for future generations.
The World Economic Forum (which runs the annual get-togethers in Davos, Switzerland) yesterday published a report on gender equality around the world, and it concluded that the gender gap was now visibly narrowing. The report, The Global Gender Gap Report, looks at economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival and political empowerment, and draws up global rankings for countries based on these criteria. And here are the top 10 countries for gender equality:
5. New Zealand
The UK comes in at number 15, and the United States at 19. The twelve lowest placed countries are Iran, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, Yemen, Benin, Saudi Arabia, Côte d’Ivoire, Pakistan, Chad and Mali (not in that order). If you should be surprised at Ireland’s very strong performance, you can find details of the relevant statistics on page 166 of the report. While the Nordic countries out-perform Ireland, there is not a huge gap between them and this country. It is also notable that Ireland performs visibly better than most continental European countries. Amidst all the negative news right now, this is not a bad achievement.