Tuesday 15 October 2019

Men have a 'teeny small' interest in gender equality - Mary Mitchell O'Connor criticises male attitudes

Higher Education Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor. Photo: INM
Higher Education Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor. Photo: INM
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Higher education minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor has delivered a blistering attack on male attitudes to gender equality.

She described the level of interest in among men as “small, as in teeny 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 that 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 creating a zero tolerance approach to sexual violence and harassment in higher education.

The “It Stops Now” conference marks International Women’s Day and the minister said there would be a special Cabinet meeting tomorrow followed by some “ground-breaking” equality announcements.

She told her largely-female audience 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 that 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 that 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 re­-purpose it so it actually achieved solid objectives. But she went on to warn that  “if we don't engage and involve men in this critical work” around gender equality-then it wasn’t going to happen “or if it does happen, it will be too little, too late”.

Ms Mitchell O’Connor referred to her announcement, last November, of 45 female-only professorships as a way of redressing a gender imbalance in senior posts in higher education.

“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?

She said the statistics proved that “academic posts are outrageously biased, in their distribution, towards men”,  a bias that was long-standing.

“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 regards 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.”

She said women had been competing “like champions” for the last 30 or 40 years for such posts and only a fraction of them had come through.

Referring to announcements after tomorrow’s Cabinet meeting, she said they would include “new guidelines and initiatives” that  women, including the National Women’s Council had been demanding for years.

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