Update: Why blood pressure should matter more to employers than menstrual cycles

By Kelly Coate

Very recently I wrote a blog on this site reporting the landmark gender discrimination case at the National Univerity of Ireland, Galway. The news went from bad to worse for NUIG last week as it was widely reported that the medical check-up required for new employees was replaced a few years ago with a self-completed health questionnaire. The questionnaire rather unfortunately contained a question about menstrual cycles. University management defended the survey as following ‘best practice’ but suspended its use while they undertake a review.

There were some very humourous responses to this fiasco on social media, particularly the brilliant cartoons in this blog post. Laughter really does help, especially given that many academic women at the university have spent years feeling demoralized and frustrated.

When I started my job at NUIG, I was given a very basic form to take to my GP and she managed to fill it in without asking any intrusive questions that I remember. That was the only time I’ve needed to undergo a health check before starting a job. I can imagine that if it is done almost as a personal benefit to the new employee it could be useful: at least you can find out whether your health is at risk and take action.

However, a survey is a totally different kettle of fish with creepy undertones of monitoring and surveillance. I am not a GP, but I am going to guess that the main health concerns of women at NUIG are not detectable through a survey – such as high blood pressure and depression. Plus, it is of no personal benefit to tell your future employer that you are pregnant through a faceless, non-responsive survey (unless of course you are ready to do so, but even then you might like to talk to someone about it).

What would have been useful for my health as a female academic at NUIG, and I’m guessing for other staff, would have been regular blood pressure checks. It is a high-pressure environment (in the ‘I can feel my blood pressure rising now’ type of way), and I’d like to share just two high-pressure moments that I experienced:

  • One was when I was on a committee that had been tasked with appointing an interview panel for the applicants of an internal, rotating leadership role. We were instructed to ensure the interview panel was gender-balanced, which prompted a male professor to mutter about how ‘restricting’ this requirement was. We were, ironically, looking at a list with more women on it than men. It was when I recounted this story later to sympathetic colleagues that I usually finished by saying quite loudly ‘And now I can feel my blood pressure rising’!


  • Another time (oh, so many!) was when senior management of NUIG sought legal advice as to whether they could pursue ‘affirmative action’ in the 2013/14 promotions round. Their version of ‘affirmative action’ was essentially to ask whether they could promote twice as many men as women. It turns out that ‘setting aside’ an insultingly low, fixed number of promotions for women applicants enables panels to keep the gender equity bar pretty low. They denied at least 5 women promotion who had been shortlisted more than once. This is far from an action that feels affirming (blood pressure!).

If I had known, when I was offered the job at NUIG, that at that time there were only 10 female Professors and about 21 female Senior Lecturers out of approx 600 academic staff (the situation is only marginally better now), well, it would have been a deal breaker. Which makes me sad, because it was in lots of ways a brilliant place to work, largely because of the many wonderful people there.

Towards the end of my time there the senior management were trying rather half-heartedly to respond to the recommendations in the gender inequality report they had recently commissioned.  A number of training programmes were offered to women academics, even though the report advised against an approach that concentrated solely on ‘fixing’ the women. I went to as many of these as I could as it meant spending the day in a room with amazing and inspiring women. They deserved and still deserve recognition and reward, not remedial school [BLOOD PRESSURE!].  And sadly, the way things are going at the moment in NUIG, not much will change.  I hope the staff and students keep their sense humour, as any other response is frankly a risk to health.

Please note: I am writing here purely in a personal capacity, to show some solidarity with the men and women at NUIG who are trying to bring about positive change.


About the author:

Kelly Coate is a Senior Lecturer in Higher Education at Kings College London and Director of the Kings Learning Institute. She was previously a Lecturer in Higher Education at the National University of Ireland, Galway. She sits on the Governing Council of the Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE) and is on the editorial boards of the Journal of Education Policy, Teaching in Higher Education, and Higher Education Research and Development.

Kelly has written about gender and academic labour, including a new article in BJSE: Coate, K. and Kandikow Howson (2014) Indicators of Esteem: Gender and Prestige in Academic Work. British Journal of Sociology of Education.  DOI:10.1080/01425692.2014.955082


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