Monday 16 September 2019

Patricia Casey: 'Why professorships plan is so embarrassing for women'

Cut above: Calum Quinn, Aine Mulvany, Laura Gleeson and Danya Elgahzel, who graduated with degrees in pharmacy and physiotherapy from Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland this week.
Cut above: Calum Quinn, Aine Mulvany, Laura Gleeson and Danya Elgahzel, who graduated with degrees in pharmacy and physiotherapy from Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland this week.

Patricia Casey

I recall when I first made the decision to become a professor. It was 1981, a few days after I had passed my membership of the Royal College of Psychiatrist Examination (London). A very eminent professor of psychiatry visited the hospital where I worked in the UK and the lecture that he delivered was so utterly banal and unengaging I realised I could do much better. On that day my dream began and to that end I completed seven years of research, including two with the Medical Research Council Unit for Suicide Prevention in Edinburgh. My research mentors served me well and the result was my appointment to the position of senior lecturer in psychiatry in UCC in 1985.

In 1990/1 I was interviewed for the chair of psychiatry in UCD on the retirement of the late Prof Sean Malone. I was the successful candidate. There were, I think, seven or more applicants and I was the only woman. I faced an interview board of 15 and the closest to a sexist question that I was asked was why I wanted to move from the lovely city of Cork to take up the rigours of a full chair in UCD. I answered I wanted to use my skills to illuminate international research and to represent Ireland in this. I also indicated only a person with power can enable this to happen. I was appointed to this position and I was Ireland's first female professor of psychiatry. One year later I went on maternity leave with the arrival of our second baby.

I have never experienced any bias or been the recipient of any sexism because I am a woman or because of maternity leave. I was a member of the Medical Research Council, I was elected to the Medical Council and chaired its Fitness to Practice Committee in the late 1990s and I have been and still am editor of one of the journals of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in London. I have published many books and scientific papers and never have my chromosomes been questioned.

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I therefore think I am entitled to an opinion on the proposal to appoint female-only chairs to universities in Ireland over the coming decade. This proposal is contained in a report published last week by Higher Education Minister Mary Mitchell O'Connor.

I utterly oppose this move. The rationale for this is referred to as unconscious bias against women based on the fact that there isn't a 50:50 distribution. I find it surprising that in 1990 there was clearly no such bias against this woman. And if it's unconscious, how do we know it exists anyway?

So what is the evidence that there is an unconscious bias against women? It's flimsy at best. Can anybody really argue convincingly that egalitarian, "progressive" republics like Norway, Switzerland, Germany and France, with women in full professorships of 29pc, 21pc, 23pc and 24pc respectively, are guilty of sexism by not reaching the 50pc threshold? Perhaps there are other explanations for these figures. The fact that there is a near 50:50 breakdown at lecturer level, the entry to academia, suggests there is equality of opportunity as there should be. Should equality of outcome also apply? Not necessarily.

Many people try academia for a period and decide against it because they have no interest in the struggles that it imposes in respect of research, grant applications and publications. A telling statistic contained in the report is that taking account of the proportions of male versus female who apply for professorships, they are granted in equal proportions. Thus it seems that when women apply for senior academic posts, they are proportionately as successful as me.

So what is deterring women from applying? Is it possible they have less aptitude for the major areas such as the Stem subjects, that dominate our universities and that the proposal is targeting for these women-only positions?

The ideological rush to egalitarianism in the Mitchell O'Connor report is based on the belief that there are no sex differences between men and women except those imposed by society. A large study from Cambridge University, involving more than 680,000 individuals, and published in 'Science', one of the world's most prestigious journals, two weeks ago, found that women have greater empathetic skills while men were more rule-based.

It found such traits predicted the professions chosen by the sexes. This reality is being ignored. Even in the 1990s, when first identified by Simon Baron- Cohen, a neuropsychologist, this finding was denounced as neurosexism.

The Stem subjects are those which the Government proposals will target for female-only professorships, at a cost of more than €6m over the next three years. Yet, these seem to be the ones that suit men generally.

The plan for female-only chairs is an ideological one. It will result in less able people being employed in certain disciplines with a diminishment in the status of our universities.

Bad feelings within departments will smoulder when equally qualified men will feel they have been deprived of an opportunity to display their ability before an international interview panel. And women holding these posts will be secretly mocked as not being real professors but only in post through favouritism.

This proposal is deeply embarrassing and patronising towards women. Positive role models will not emerge from substandard academics.

Irish Independent

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