Ask the panel

June 9, 2006

Worried about your employment, maternity, pension rights? Send your questions to The Times Higher advice panel.

I am a female with post-qualifying financial services experience who has worked in a university for five years. On three occasions when I applied for senior posts I was interviewed by an all-male panel and the jobs were given to male colleagues who have time to socialise with senior colleagues while I go home to my family. I feel this procedure is unfair and would like advice on how to further my career.

* Our Equality Challenge Unit panellist answers: "Under the forthcoming gender equality duty (GED), higher education institutions need to promote equality of opportunity between men and women. Institutions should, ideally, consult staff and stakeholders when developing gender equality schemes. Mixed-sex interview panels could be advocated by respondents to any consultation, however, all panellistsJshould beJtrained in equality and diversity issues regardless.

"Under the GED, there will be a requirement to assess the impact of developments in employment or policies. This does not mean institutions have to introduce quotas for women or initiate positive discrimination, but they may, for example, wish to review women's participation rates on training programmes."

She adds: "You could approach the human resources department to discuss your career plan. You might wish to request feedback from the panel chair to understand the selection criteria used in your interviews. Find out if the university subscribes to positive developmental programmes such as mentoring and register on them."

* The University and College Union panellist says: "Your question is about process. If a department has had three panels in succession without finding a single suitable woman to sit on them, the obvious question is where are all the senior women? If the answer is that the institution has few senior female employees, there's a problem. But turn the question round: is the gender composition of an interview panel enough on its own to constitute an act of direct discrimination? In a similar situation (the racial composition of panels), the employment appeals tribunal has said it is probably not (Henry v Unison).

"So you will need to show that the unfairness isn't just procedural but is reflected in the content of decisions: that statistically the panels promote men and not women.

"Try to establish how many men and women applied for promotions on the three occasions you did, and who was successful. The simplest way would probably be to address the question directly to the panel chair. If they fail to answer your question, you could put in a grievance or, if that fails, a sex discrimination questionnaire to your employer. The form can be found on the Equal Opportunities Commission's website, or from Jobcentres.

"If your employer fails to address your grievance satisfactorily, you could take them to an employment tribunal. If they fail to answer your questionnaire, it may be deemed that you have sufficient primary facts to show that discrimination may be present. If that happens, and the failure to answer a questionnaire may be sufficient, the duty switches to the employer to disprove the argument that they did in fact discriminate by not promoting women."

* Our Universities and Colleges Employers' Association panellist says: "Find out more about the assessment criteria used in the recruitment process and the process itself, and get detailed feedback about your application and performance at interview. It may be that the male colleagues appointed were better qualified or more experienced, or that you could improve your interview technique.

"In terms of furthering your career, you should look carefully at the criteria specified for the more senior roles and determine whether there are any areas of your skills or experience you could develop. You could also discuss your career development with your manager during an appraisal, and seek advice on opportunities to learn new skills, training or gain additional relevant experience."

This advice panel includes the University and College Union, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, Research Councils UK, the Equality Challenge Unit and Rachel Flecker, an academic who sits on Bristol University's contract research working party.

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