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Women only need apply

The announcement by the Republic’s higher education minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor to create women only positions in universities has received responses varying from derision to praise. The idea is to create professorships only available to women so as to even out the imbalance against women in higher education. On a charitable reading we must assume that for O’Connor this scheme is genuinely aimed at evening out the gender balance in the higher levels of academia and not simply jobs for the girls.

Whilst one can praise O’Connor’s commitment to gender equality, one can certainly question her strategy for bringing that about. Such schemes which discriminate against one group so as to correct a historical imbalance against another group fall under the euphemistic title of positive discrimination. Whereas in the past women were negatively discriminated against when entering higher education, now we employ positive discrimination to get them in. The assumption here is that because the discrimination is positive (for women) it is good.

However, positive discrimination for one group is very easily seen as negative discrimination against another. This is because the other group that it impacts, in this case men, are being discriminated against on the basis of factors irrelevant to the post; it does not matter whether one is male or female in order to be awarded with a professorship, what matters, among other things, is one’s experience, publications, qualifications etc.

Now one may argue that historically men have benefited from discrimination against women in the past, and in order to right that we must employ positive discrimination on behalf of women. But this is quite flawed reasoning because it treats individual men and women as part and parcel of the amorphous groups: men and women, and it reasons that if an individual is a member of one group, then he or she deserves the appropriate discrimination. But it is not clear that the individual men applying for jobs in higher education have benefited from historical negative discrimination against women, nor that the individual women who will benefit from O’Connor’s proposals have been negatively impacted by historical negative discrimination against women.

Being a member of a group with an identity does not entail that one is subject to all the privileges and drawbacks of that group. Rather, human beings are individuals, and so if one wants to correct injustice, one must look to injustices upon the individual. This is why when it comes to employment, what is taken into consideration are only those criteria which directly affect the post in question, and the candidate is assessed on whether or not he or she meets that criteria. This is the fairest way of awarding a position to a candidate, since the only injustice that can occur will be one which overlooks the candidate’s fit for the post and judges the candidate on criteria not relevant to the post. In academia, gender is not a relevant criterion for the fulfilment of a post, and hence it would be unjust to wield it against a candidate who applies for a position (or to deny outright the opportunity to apply).

So in this case what we have is one injustice being used to correct another historical injustice; and it is not at all clear that in order to correct injustice we must make use of more injustice. Rather, resorting to injustice to correct injustice only perpetuates injustice, accustoms a society to the universality of injustice, and in this case does nothing to promote excellence in academia. This is why O’Connor’s plan is not only plain silly, it is downright unjust.

Dr Gaven Kerr