Digging deeper on public appointments

Why ask a question when the answer is there to see? Yesterday, Felicity Huston, asked why there was no improvement in the proportion of women appointed to serve as members and/or chairs of public bodies in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Commissioner for Public Appointments highlighted that:

In 2005/06 men hold 68% of all public appointments in Northern Ireland and 75% of chair appointments.

The statistics she used were taken from the 10th annual report on public appointments (pdf file). This data is pretty clear, it isn’t the appointment process but the lack of applicants that is the problem. (Hat tip to Wild Turkey and Rubicon for making me take a deeper look).
In 2005/2006 the 10th Annual report shows that 13% of applicants for the Chair positions and 29% of applicants for all available positions were female. However in 2005/06, 18% of chair positions and 35% of all appointments were women (a slight bias in favour of female candidates of 5% and 6% respectively).

Rubicon also highlighted Simpson’s paradox in which:

the successes of several groups seem to be reversed when the groups are combined. This seemingly impossible result is encountered surprisingly often in social science and medical statistics, and occurs when a weighting variable which is not relevant to the individual group assessment must be used in the combined assessment.

One of the best known examples of this paradox is the Berkeley sex bias case where:

U. C. Berkeley was sued for bias against women applying to grad school. The admission figures showed that men applying were more likely than women to be admitted, and the difference was so large that it was unlikely to be due to chance. However when examining the individual departments, it was found that no department was significantly biased against women; in fact, most departments had a small (and not very significant) bias against men. The explanation turned out to be that women tended to apply to departments with low rates of admission, while men tended to apply to departments with high rates of admission.

Could such a paradox be in operation here? Yes, it could. You have a wide range of bodies and positions all looking for different skill sets and the 2005/06 figures for each Department show a very uneven spread of female applicants. For positions on Executive NDPBs and HPSS Bodies, the Department of Cultural Arts and Leisure, Department of Social Development and Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister all received no female applicants. The remaining Departments rank as follows:
DARD – 11% female applicants (-18% below total applicant %)
DRD – 18% female applicants (-11% below total applicant %)
DE – 28% female applicants (-1% below total applicant %)
DETI – 34% female applicants (5% above total applicant %)
DEnv – 35% female applicants (6% above total applicant %)
DHSSPS – 35% female applicants (6% above total applicant %)
DEL – 38% female applicants (9% above the total applicant %)

Now that Felicity Huston has raised the issue of female representation and distortions on public bodies she may also care to look at the suprising ability of members of the NIWC to gain appointments to key public bodies.

  • wild turkey


    Sorry but I would have thought that the Public Appts Commissioner would have ensured an adequate and robust analysis of the available data was undertaken that could have, it appears, answered her own question.

    Relevant sex discrimination legislation and related case law allows positive action to be taken with respect to under-represented groups. For example, I believe the Equality Commission has taken, or is still undertaking, actions to address the under-representation of protestants and men in their workforce. To date, I am not aware of the outcomes of these particular actions.

    With respect to the ‘surprising’ ability of members of the now defunct NIWC to secure appts to key public bodies, is this within the remit of the Commissioner to investigate further? What if any evidence is there that ex NIWC members may be over represented in some public appts? Just curious.

  • fair_deal


    1. Not sure of her investigatory powers.
    2. She can certainly comment upon it. Most public appointments are not presently under her purview but that did not prevent her from commenting about them.
    3. The stats are available through the final link.
    4. She is also an example of the phenomenon herself. She is a former NIWC candidate and member of the talks team.

  • Now, that’s useful, informative stuff from both parties. Well done! Thanks for the reminder of Simpson’s Paradox. However:
    “Simpson’s Paradox is caused by a combination of a lurking variable and data from unequal sized groups being combined into a single data set. The unequal group sizes, in the presence of a lurking variable, can weight the results incorrectly. This can lead to seriously flawed conclusions. The obvious way to prevent it is to not combine data sets of different sizes from a diverse sources.

    “Simpson’s Paradox will generally not be a problem in a well designed experiment or survey if possible lurking variables are identified ahead of time and properly controlled. This includes eliminating them, holding them constant for all groups or making them part of the study.”
    [I nicked that from http://www.intuitor.com/statistics/SimpsonsParadox.html%5D

    NIWC were respectable, and had their delicate little toes in through the important doors. It was ever thus: friend of a friend stuff. In the US it used to be the League of Women Voters who occupied the same slot. On the mainland, of course, it’s the WAGs of politicos.

    As for the “under representation of protestants”, what are the advertisements for posts at Magee campus saying these days? [I mention this only because, the last time I looked, the tone was almost begging.]

  • Mark

    Are these bloggers saying action should be taken to encourage more women to apply?

    That’s not the subtext I’m reading.

    I’m picking up; you get more than you deserve now back to the kitchen with you. Similar to how I perceive their attitudes to Catholic employment.

    Male and Prod these guys will have your back.

    Under-represented – it’s your own fault nothing to do with us.

    I believe it’s called the Nesbitts.

  • fair_deal

    No one is saying the nasty things that would be the basis of an attack. How to overcome this? Say they think the nasty things.

  • Rubicon

    Mark – taking in to account Simpson’s paradox has nothing to do with taking an adversarial view to female appointments. It is simply grappling with the evidence to understand what is happening and Fair Deal seems to be doing a better job of it than the Public Appointments Commissioner. It is only when the nature of the problem is understood that appropriate action can be considered. This is essential to dealing with under-representation of any group; female, Catholic, disabled ….

    I remember attending a session at the West Belfast Economic Forum and making a similar point only for a delegate behind me to ask “who is that f*cking Brit!?”. A completely irrelevant comment made about probably one of the few people in the room who had actually paid for their Irish citizenship.

    Being an Irish republican has often confounded the concept of republicanism. Equality is not about specific outcomes – that objective has more to do with social engineering. The focus on unemployment in the west of the city ended out providing crap, short term, low paid employment. Tackling disadvantage caused by poverty has been far more successful.

  • Mark


    You would be basing that on Fair Deal being an unbiased individual presenting all the evidence fairly? Instead of someone given tax payer money to promote the PUL (Protestant, Ulster, Loyalist) cause?

  • Rubicon

    Mark – are you suggesting FD is actually Jeffery Donaldson? Have you been outed FD? 😉

    On the equality issue – if female applications are down that is a concern. From FD’s stats above female application rates are uniformly low but particularly to in agriculture, regional development and education. The education rate is particularly concerning since females predominate in this profession. It is important to understand why and if their are unfair/non-business related criteria in the appointments mechanism that is contributing to this.

    I have no problem in FD questioning NIWC high representation. Perhaps it is due to the causes Malcolm Redfellow identified and, if so, it is unfair. The fact that they’re female doesn’t make it right. The same kind of “North Down sherry set” reserved positions for retired civil servants and WAGS that kept Catholics out. I’m not too sure it’s stopped.

  • wild turkey

    ‘Are these bloggers saying action should be taken to encourage more women to apply?

    That’s not the subtext I’m reading. ‘

    Please read my post again (see below). I am saying the law and good practice as defined by case law enables positive actions to be taken to attract individuals from under-represented groups to put themselves forward in relevant recruitment and selection processes. This may include welcoming statements in adverts etc etc

    ‘Relevant sex discrimination legislation and related case law allows positive action to be taken with respect to under-represented groups. For example, I believe the Equality Commission has taken, or is still undertaking, actions to address the under-representation of protestants and men in their workforce. To date, I am not aware of the outcomes of these particular actions.’

    Whatever subtext you are reading from the above , is your own interpretation. It ain’t mine.

  • Mick Fealty


    You have an incredible knack for ignoring the subject in hand and going for what you think is being said, in this case based on what you think you know about the individuals, rather than what is actually being said. It verges on forsaking the ball, if not outright playing of the man.

    It has been the plague of these comment zones from the beginning. Surely it is best to accept (prima facie) that the argument is put forward in good faith, and then, if you disagree with it, pull the argument to pieces, or offer a more compelling alternative view?

    My own view is there is clearly a problem, that is no doubt being worried about in official circles. I have no doubt that public discussion has the potential to worry all the issues into some kind of useful shape. In that respect, I am glad that FD has sought to raise the matter, rather than leave it buried.

    Re the prominence of former members of the Women’s Coalition, I think we should be careful not to scapegoat an organisation that was originally galvanised not so much as a political party, so much as a pressure group to address the deficit of prominent women in Northern Irish society. Things have to start from somewhere.

    When you think of the real prominence of women in the rest of the UK and Ireland, (Ruth Kelly, Margaret Beckett, Mary Harney and Mary Hanafin to name a few) the lack of women even in the Assembly Chamber is nothing short of a disgrace. If our politicians have not got the political will to seek out and ruthlessly promote talent within their own ranks, then there is (I suspect) little hope that legislation will do it on our behalf.

    Closer to home, I would note (without any kind of a politically correct hat on) the difficulty I have had trying to recruit women bloggers to write into the bear pit that Slugger can sometimes be. Sticking your head above the parapet is not easy. If you are too sensitive you can get slaughtered. And if you do it well, you get no thanks for braving the inevitable fire-storms.

    I have no easy answers to the questions posed by Fair Deal, other than to say that I am certain there is no lack of talented women out there. That there is such a deficit of women at the higher end of our public life has to come down to a number of factors, not least the feeling amongst individual women that they can do without the heartache that inevitably comes with taking public flak (which comes whether you are male or female).

    But it is also likely that this sorry status quo arises from the way in which Northern Ireland has been largely cut off from the modern world for most of the last forty years.

  • I Wonder

    4 Board members were appointed to the new water company: 2 were female. Its unrealistic to expect an exact correlation between the proportion of male/females who apply and those who are appointed. Public appointments vary greatly in their nature. Many require technical and professional experience which members of the “public” do not always possess.
    “Public” appointments can be a misnomer, but all NICS Departments are committed to OCPA overseeing their appointment processes.

  • Animus

    If you examine who takes up public appointments, there seems to be a small pool of people who go from appointment to appointment. I know that there have been efforts to encourage people to apply, but they just aren’t working. Councillors are entitled to a number of seats on various bodies, so it would be interesting to see how many women are put forward on that basis.

    It doesn’t surprise me that NIWC members are well-represented. These are people who chose to become active in public life aren’t they? Are you suprised by the number of people from other political parties?

  • fair_deal


    “there seems to be a small pool of people who go from appointment to appointment.”

    Agreed, there does indeed appear to be such a small pool (IIRC the Belfast telegraph did a good series of articles on that about 5-7 years ago) but adding another small poll (the NIWC) to an existing small pool does not create equality of opportunity.

  • willis

    Fair Deal

    I think you are missing the point. If a group of people who are already active in public life decide to form a political party they will carry a lot of their involvement with them.

    The pity is that many other people in public life do not want to know about politics here. The condecending tone of many of the posts gives a good reason why.

    Look at the sort of nonsense that Nuala O’Loan has to put up with.

  • Animus

    I see your point FD, but my point is that the NIWC was a group which self-organised through common interest in civic duty. I wonder if the same could be said for the other small pool. I know a few people through my work who spend a huge amount of time serving boards. It does make me wonder how effective a system it is, notwithstanding the issue of the representativeness of public appointees.

    My other point is that political parties are generally well-represented on public parties, but the one mentioned is the Women’s Coalition. As a smaller party, doesn’t this seem a success of the party compared to other similarly sized parties? What are the figures on public appointment representation for women from other parties?

    Many board meetings take place at inconvenient times of day. In order to get time off work to attend meetings, (it is generally a given that time for board meetings is taken out of one’s own time) a person has to be in a certain level of post. Many women aren’t in senior positions, so even if appointed, wouldn’t necessarily be able to devote the necessary time to the appointment. Until women are able to be better represented at higher levels in the workplace, many will not be able to serve on public bodies.

  • fair_deal


    “the NIWC was a group which self-organised through common interest in civic duty. I wonder if the same could be said for the other small pool.”

    I would agree with your wonderment/scepticism but I would apply it equally to both pools.

    “What are the figures on public appointment representation for women from other parties?”

    There is no gender breakdown of the political reps who serve on public bodies but I would not expect it to be good.

  • Animus

    Two things really stick out about the figures: the posts which are well-remunerated are much more likely to be awarded to men. The age group is also very telling – many of those who are in reciept of an appointment are over 50, nearly half (a significant figure since 64 of 517 of first appointments are unknown). So these are likely to be people who have retired or with an eye to retirement. Since you seem quite concerned about NIWC punching above their weight, it would be interesting to see the age profile of appointees in this regard.

    My own pet theory is that people who have been accustomed to a great deal of status don’t necessarily want to leave that behind when they leave paid work. A well-remunerated public appointment is just the ticket. And only politically savvy or well-connected people are likely to make the grade.

  • fair_deal


    The well renumerated posts probably involve a greater time commitment reinforcing the issue you mentioned earlier.

  • This is one of the most significant debates I have seen on Slugger lately. Mick gives us the bottom line:
    “When you think of the real prominence of women in the rest of the UK and Ireland, … the lack of women even in the Assembly Chamber is nothing short of a disgrace.


    Put aside the abstract arguments, paradoxes nand paradigms, and it has to come down to (a) chauvinism (of which I stand guilty as charged) and/or (b) greed and/or (c) access.

    As to (b), here’s a passing thought: a quarter of a century ago I had spent a dozen years in elective politics, serving on London local authorities. Yes, it buggered up my career. I was motivated by ideology, egoism and a (misplaced?) concept of “public service” — but hardly by financial rewards, because even those activities where there was a remuneration were “expenses only”.

    I can assure all and sundry that (in 1974) even an MP was “paid” less than a Deputy Headteacher of a secondary school. Today it is snouts and troughs. There is more than a decent living to be made in “public service”. Suddenly, all those day-time meetings (which got in the way of the day-job, and were therefore shuffled off to the womenfolk) are amply rewarded. Perhaps someone can fill us in on the Northern Irish rates. Typically (in London, where I still have contacts), the elected borough councillor now gets an “allowance” of £10K, plus £15K for chairing a committee; the leader of a council is on £40K. What’s the going rate for a two-hour meeting of the crematorium management committee? In my day we did it for tea and biscuits. Which was why it was women and public employees (i.e. teachers like me, who were granted so many days a year) who could afford to do it.

    As for (c), to change things we need grass-roots, ward parties, constituency associations or whatever, open to all. How, in the name of all things good, would a young climber-upward even start in Northern Irish politics? The conventional unionist route has been through the Orange Lodge, the Presbyterian Church or the local mob/mafia: none of which is particularly “liberated” or female-accessible. How does it differ on the nationalist side?