Lit&Deb Soc holds Gender Equality Panel
The Literary and Debating Society held an Equality Panel on 1 October to discuss sexism within the management of NUI Galway. The headline speaker was Micheline Sheehy-Skeffington, who is notable for her successful court case against the University last year.
An Equality Tribunal found that botanist Sheehy-Skeffington was discriminated against on grounds of gender when turned down for a promotion in 2009. In the wake of this tribunal, five other NUI Galway lecturers are currently pursuing the university on similar grounds.
For several generations, the Sheehy-Skeffington family have been strongly involved in feminism and political activism. At the event, she said with confidence; “God damn it, I’m a troublesome feminist and I come from a long line of troublesome feminists.”
During the Equality Panel, Sheehy-Skeffington pointed to the details of the tribunal as posted on the NUI Galway website. Whether deliberate or not, there were six instances of misinformation.
This included presenting statistics in an unclear way, giving half-truths while withholding key information, and drawing attention away from points which would cast the university in a poor light.
In particular, the website presented the 2009 promotion rounds as an isolated incident from which they had moved on. Sheehy-Skeffington described this as “disingenuous, in polite words”.
In the most recent promotion rounds, 29 women and 28 men were shortlisted for promotion. 18 men were given the promotion compared to nine women, with three more women promoted upon appeal.
The Gender Equality Task Force was formed in response to the tribunal. Former professor Angela Savage, speaking from the audience, said that she volunteered for the Task Force but received no reply. She felt this was inappropriate: she had extensive qualifications and experience, and she was on speaking terms with the two men who did not afford her a response.
Miss Savage went on to say that the university management did not choose individuals for the Task Force who would “know what’s happening on the ground”. She believes she was not given a position because she was too knowledgeable of gender inequality and as such would be “a thorn in their side”.
The second speaker was Maggie Ronane of the SIPTU campaign for gender equality within NUI Galway proceedings. Although the university management claimed that the Task Force was independent, she said it was made up of employees of the University, had little expertise, was ineffective in their methods, and that their suggestions would do little to subtract from systemic sexism.
NUI Galway held a Mindfulness Conference last week to promote a ‘mindful campus’. Savage dismissed the conference as a hollow PR exercise. In Buddhism, mindfulness is based on loving kindness; “There is no loving kindness in the Quadrangle.”
Sheehy-Skeffington further criticised the university’s lack of accommodation for exceptional circumstances in cases of parents and carers. Prior to her retirement, she had to care for her elderly mother and travel from Galway to Dublin every week. The University did not take this into account and deemed her insufficiently productive.
Women within NUI Galway, Miss Ronane asserted, are often pressured to work during maternity leave. Female lecturers may return from their leave to find that they have been demoted, or responsibilities have been taken away from them. They may also find their pensions reduced.
Miss Ronane pointed to the treatment of cleaners in NUI Galway, who are mostly female. Across the country, most cleaners are paid €17.50 an hour. In NUI Galway, cleaners work under a private contractor which pays them €9.50 an hour, which is not a living wage. Some cleaners are pressured to do 50% more work without extra pay, and are threatened if they object, according to Miss Ronane.
Miss Ronane also emphasised that these issues are impacting the quality of education that students are receiving. Time and resources are being spent dealing with discrimination and fighting against it that ought to be used to better their work. These problems have practical consequences for students.
As such, she encouraged the student body to get involved in the SIPTU campaign; “The University is not the university management. The University is all of us, and I think we should take back our University.”
Catherine Ryan, Students’ Union Equality Officer, also spoke briefly. Having seen the impact of discrimination on women, staff and students alike, she expressed doubt that she had chosen the right university.
Noel Maguire, SIPTU Industrial Organiser, said that “quite a bit of work is falling on a small number of people”. He encouraged students to join the campaign and “apply pressure from all sides”.
The university management and Gender Equality Task Force were asked to send representatives to the event. The Task Force declined, saying that their work was ongoing. University management did not respond.
A relevant art exhibition is being held by FemSoc in the Secret Garden to raise funds for the five people currently in tribunals. Illustrated t-shirts are available reading ‘Mr Browne’s Boys’, a reference to University President Dr Jim Browne.
Dr. Sheehy-Skeffington’s blog on the subject can be found at michelinesthreeconditions.wordpress.com.
By Mark Laherty