More than aspiration needed to tackle gender discrimination

10th European Conference on Gender Equality in Higher Education

The 10th European Conference on Gender Equality in Higher Education was held in Trinity College Dublin, on the 20th – 22nd August 2018.  This is the first occasion that this major biennial conference was held in Ireland.  These European conferences have brought together hundreds of gender equality practitioners, researchers, policy makers and administrators from Europe and beyond.  IFUT were represented by Joan Donegan, General Secretary, Fiona Lee, Industrial Relations & Data Protection Officer, and Angela Flynn, our incoming President from UCC.

As we await the Report of Minister Mary Mitchell-O’Connor’s Task Force on gender discrimination, it is clear that both age and gender discrimination is alive and well in many sections of universities and society and that these issues should be resolved by negotiation or through normal industrial relations procedures.
The recent resolution of the cases involving five female academics who had taken cases for career discrimination in NUI Galway was ultimately resolved through a negotiation process. 

IFUT had earlier reached agreement for one of the women pursuing a solely negotiation strategy. 

The other four women had sought legal redress during which enormous sums of taxpayer and student fees money was used by the college to fight the case legally.  Ultimately, however, the process was resolved outside the courts, which should be the aim and focus of all Trade Union related issues. 

Universities generally are beginning to recognise and accept this piece of common sense.  There remains, however, a tendency to spend tight resources on costly legal fees to avoid accepting Workplace Relations Commission decisions. 

Latest figures on gender progression among academics from the Higher Education Authority show a small improvement in female promotion figures at higher levels, but full and real gender equality remains a distant target. 

This is despite recent intense focus on the issue, including the 2016 report by Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, pressure to deliver the Athena SWAN Charter, and detailed coverage in the media.

The problem is that a culture of gender discrimination is deeply rooted in our entire society and economy. 

The government, through Minister for Finance and Public Reform, Pascal Donohue, has set ‘a target of 50/50 gender balance in appointments at senior levels’ in the civil service.

Yet the ‘National Strategy for Women and Girls 2017 - 2020’, on which government policy is based, is riddled with vague aspirational language, such as “supporting a greater focus on women’s participation” and  “accelerating progress”.  On equal pay it seeks only to “initiate dialogue between union and employer stakeholders.” 
Deeply entrenched attitudes on women’s ‘place’ will not be addressed through aspiration.  In Iceland, for example, despite an equal pay act dating to 1961, women there still earn, on average, between 14% and 20% less than men.

Iceland this year moved beyond aspiration to become the first country in the world to legally enforce equal pay.  Within four years from January 2018, any public or private body in Iceland employing more than 25 people not independently certified as paying equal wages for work of equal value will face daily fines.  Those with more than 250 staff must comply by the end of this year. 

Deep seated bias and discrimination may seem intractable.  But determined government action can deliver real change. 
Anything, therefore, is possible.