Friday 22 March 2019

Men have 'teeny-weeny' interest in gender equality, says minister

Higher Education Minister Mary Mitchell O'Connor. Photo: Mark Condren
Higher Education Minister Mary Mitchell O'Connor. Photo: Mark Condren
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Higher Education Minister Mary Mitchell O'Connor has delivered a blistering attack on male attitudes to gender equality.

She described men's level of interest in equality as "small, as in teeny-weeny small, as in this small", as she gestured to her audience with her thumb and forefinger only centimetres apart.

The minister spoke about the silence from men to her women-only professorships initiative, although she also said some women "patted me on the head", claiming the jobs would be seen as second-rate.

Ms Mitchell O'Connor was speaking at a National Women's Council of Ireland (NWCI) conference, on the eve of International Women's Day, on the theme of creating a zero-tolerance approach to sexual violence and harassment in higher education.

The minister referred to some "ground-breaking" equality announcements that would follow today's special Cabinet meeting marking the event.

She told her largely female audience at the 'It Stops Now' conference that women were making a "huge mistake" if they thought talking about women's issues to groups made up exclusively of women was going to change things on the equality agenda.

"How many men, for example, do you think are going to contact the organisers of this event after we finish, looking for copies of any speeches made? Think about it," she said.

She said Ireland was full of powerful, influential, thoughtful men, in politics, in the arts, in business and in sport, and continued: "So every one of them must be clamouring to hear what we're saying here today, mustn't they?

"Well, if you can hear that clamour, your hearing must be a lot better than mine is."

She said anyone who believed the organisers were "going to have multiple requests for papers from the conference from influential men, from the men who matter in Ireland in 2019, you're a whole lot more optimistic than I am - and I'm optimistic by nature."

The minister said International Women's Day was "in danger of becoming what holy days used to be when we were going to school, back in the day; a chance to skive off with friends and have no homework for that day."

She said there was a need to repurpose it so it achieved solid objectives. But she went on to warn that "if we don't engage and involve men in this critical work" around equality, it wasn't going to happen "or if it does happen, it will be too little, too late".

Talking about "solid objectives", Ms Mitchell O'Connor referred to her announcement of 45 female-only professorships to be introduced in higher education as a way of redressing a gender imbalance in senior posts.

"On the day of the launch and thereafter, I didn't have to say 'curb your enthusiasm,' because enthusiasm stayed pretty much curbed without any help from me. Men stayed mostly silent, presumably feeling safer in silence.

"Women - committed feminists, even - patted me on the head and said they understood where I was coming from, but really, the positions would be seen as second-rate. Really?" And she emphasised, again: "Really?"

She said statistics proved that "academic posts are outrageously biased, in their distribution, towards men", a bias that was long-standing. There had been "a huge, massive, 'ginormous' unconscious bias present for decades."

She said "the bottom line is that for generations, men within academia have effectively confined hundreds of professorships and lectureships to men.

"Were any of those professorships or lectureships regarded as second-rate as a result of that? Are you kidding?

"Yet the minute a female minister says, 'Lads, here's a handful of posts you can't go for. Here are a handful of posts that, by way of a tiny tilt towards equality, will be kept for women,' the view taken is negative."

Women had been competing "like champions" for such posts and only a fraction of them had come through, added the minister.

Irish Independent

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