Concerns were raised over “positive discrimination” in the hiring of academics, as Minister for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor prepared for November’s announcement of 45 new academic women-only posts.
The Irish Times reported that the Department of Education was seeking advice over the legality of creating positions open only to female applicants, after officials in the Department of Public Expenditure raised concerns over the legality of the new professorships last April.
In correspondence seen by the Irish Times, the Assistant Secretary for the department, William Beausang said of the women-only professorships: “This model draws on international experience in particular from the Netherlands – where the approach has been notably successful.”
The head of the civil service HR policy unit, Louise McGirr, said in response: “You have described it as positive action but I am not sure if it is more along the lines of positive discrimination. Positive action being lawful and positive discrimination is not.”
She went on: “Positive action is not ring-fencing posts for people of a protected characteristic (ie in this case female) but you can give preference to an underrepresented characteristic (women in this case) all other things being equal and the candidates being equal on merit.”
By late September, the department was still in communication with the Attorney General’s office over the legality of the initiative. In November, Mitchell O’Connor’s women-only professorships were approved, with the announcement coming out on November 11th.
The government is expecting legal challenge to the women-only posts.
In a statement to the Irish Times, the Department of Education said: “The design of the initiative was supported by detailed legal advice from the Office of the Attorney General.”
The government-funded professorships were announced late last year by Mitchell O’Connor as a way of combating gender inequality in the higher education sector. This is reported to be costing roughly €6 million over the next three years.
A woman has not served as the president of any Irish university, despite the fact that females make up over half of university lecturers.
Mitchell O’Connor has been vocal about the issue of gender inequality in higher education, telling The University Times in a previous interview: “I’ll tell you what Ireland needs. Ireland needs equality. Gender equality. No buts, no ifs, no nothings. That’s it. And I also want the best person for the job.”