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Over the past few weeks, it has emerged that Lancaster University is in the process of recruiting 50 new lecturers, where 23 of the present 31 identify as male. Furthermore, only 9 of the 31 do not identify as white. As with most University announcements, there is anger at the new appointments, suggesting that employing such a large group of men is “wrong on every level imaginable”. It is claimed that the silence surrounding the recruitment, which under different circumstances would be cause for celebration, is due to embarrassment. The guillotine, then, for the embarrassed recruiter. On the other hand, some would argue that this recruitment is a step in the right direction rather than being yet another management debacle. Whilst we are still a long way from complete gender equality, it is on the horizon. Equality takes time to achieve, and this recruitment cycle shows just how slow the societal shift is occurring. It has been noted that a newly recruited lecturer would have started their university education at least 7 years ago, so any apparent inequality in the recruitment reflects the opportunities available to them several years ago. What we are experiencing with these 50th anniversary lectureships is an inequality hangover, rather than a true reflection of equality today.
I would argue that both of these parties are confused. This so-called ‘equality’ is an illusion, one which harbours at its heart the faulty assumption that equality follows from equal quantities. It is based on the assumption that gender equality only follows if, and only if, there are an equal number of men and women. I believe that this is far from the truth, but let us assess the current situation.
For the sake of argument, let’s imagine that we have been assigned the undesirable job of recruiting 50 new lecturers, and we have subsequently been presented with the following scenario. 25 males and 24 females have been recruited thus far, and there is one vacancy left to be filled. Two candidates remain: a highly qualified male, and an unqualified female. Here, a person under the illusion of equality stumbles upon a dilemma: recruit the male and have the illusion of inequality, or recruit someone unsuitable for the role. If the female is recruited, despite being unqualified, gender is being acknowledged as a qualification, which is sexist by definition.
Whilst this is an abstract example, it is enough to demonstrate that equality does not follow from equal quantities. Equality involves a system in which everyone has the same opportunities – a person’s ethnicity and gender should neither broaden nor narrow their opportunities. With this in mind, it would be theoretically possible for the University to recruit 50 new lecturers (all of whom identify as white male) and still exercise equality. As long as being white and male neither encouraged nor discouraged the university to recruit them, equality still prevailed.
But what about the inequality hangover? Should the unequal opportunities of the past be reflected in current recruitment processes? Should recruiters assume, for example, that women, to compensate for fewer opportunities, have worked harder than men? The answer is no, for two reasons. Firstly, the ability to work hard is itself a credential, which should be acknowledged by recruiters. Secondly, taking this sort of affirmative action, to correct the oppression of yesterday with a new oppression today, will only serve to lengthen the inequality hangover.
Some are worried that the recruitment will adversely impact Lancaster University’s image. Of course, I share their concern. But the image to which they refer to has been fashioned to conform to the illusion of equality. Institutions like Lancaster University have been browbeaten for too long by champions of the illusion. I do not blame them for maintaining their ‘awful silence’ – if I had accidentally recruited 23 white males out of just 31, I would be quiet about it too.