It seems that the Irish government has not been able to avoid its own gender discrimination crisis with the recent revelation that Minister of State for Training and Skills, John Halligan has been found to have been responsible for asking discriminatory questions while conducting an interview for a civil service position within his department. 

Mr Halligan who is a member of the Independent Alliance since 2015 was interviewing a female civil servant executive officer for the post of his private secretary in May 2016 and during the interview, Mr. Halligan said “I know I shouldn’t be asking this, but are you a married woman? Do you have children? How old are your children?”.

Following the interview, the lady in question made a formal complaint and was awarded €7,500 in compensation by the Workplace Relations Committee (WRC) this week. The WRC found that she had been discriminated against under the Employment Equality Act. Mr Halligan responded this week by stating that “During the course of this interview for the role of private secretary – shortly after I became Minister of State – I asked the candidate if she had children and their ages,” he said.

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Irish Minister of State for Training and Skills, John Halligan

Mr. Halligan went on to say that “I did this as I wanted her to feel that I would be flexible in terms of any family business that she may have to attend to.

“Too many workplaces have less than family-friendly arrangements and I always ensure that my workplace is as family-friendly as possible.”

But the question must be asked that if Mr. Halligan was trying to put the interviewee at ease, surely asking such questions would have the opposite effect to say the least. The other question is that how can a government minister not be aware that questions such as the ones he asked are an absolute no go area in any modern day interview?

The backlash continued all though this week with various comments being made in the public sphere. Workplace Relations Commission Adjudication Officer Penelope McGrath said that “I doubt very much that the HR officer, with his clear HR experience, had he known in advance of what was going to be asked, would have sanctioned it.” She went on to add that “the Minister of State alone spoke the words and the post-incident attempt to dress it up in a ‘context’ does not take away from the objectively discriminatory nature of these remarks”.

Green Party TD Catherine Martin was scolding in her remarks on the national radio stations’ morning program by stating that Mr Halligan’s remarks were “grossly inappropriate” and hinting that his position needs to be reviewed.

“Would he ask a man those questions? No, I do not think so. What I’ve heard to date from the minister is an apology. That was needed. I heard his justification for this totally inappropriate question but what I have not heard is the admission from the minister that those questions were completely unacceptable and grossly inappropriate. We need to hear that he admits and realises that those questions were inappropriate.

“If he remains unaware that those questions were inappropriate … then I think his position would be untenable.”

However, despite whatever the fallout will be from this, there is the feeling that Mr. Halligan will keep his job as many political commentators believe that should there be a resignation from the minister, it could cause a domino effect leading to a possible fall of the government. While opposition party, Fianna Fail have been critical of this matter there has so far, been no call for his resignation which may hint towards the current status quo being preferred.

Mr. Halligan is currently in Thailand on government business but is expected to face a barrage of criticism when he arrives back in Dublin shortly.

There is no doubt that Mr. Halligan has made a gross error with regards to this situation and needs to face appropriate action if the government is to be seen to be addressing gender inequality issues. It’s time for individuals and organisations to understand that this kind of behaviour, even if it is a genuine mistake, cannot go without repercussions. If those repercussions need to be dismissals, then so be it. There is a world-wide spotlight on the gender issue and if we are to continue to be a nation that upholds equality for all, then our highest office needs to set the proper example and administer the appropriate sanctions against those who cannot act accordingly.

It is not longer an excuse to say that you made a mistake. Gender equality should come naturally to all who hold positions of influence.

 

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