Tuesday 17 September 2019

Some queries are just out of the question. Period.

Charges of misogyny are too easy, but that doesn't make what NUI Galway was doing acceptable

Senator Trevor O’ Clochartaigh
Senator Trevor O’ Clochartaigh

Eilis O'Hanlon

The curse of NUI Galway strikes again. First, the university found itself in trouble by overlooking senior female lecturers for promotion, one of whom won €80,000 in compensation after taking a case to the Equality Tribunal. Last week, there was another demonstration by students about that ongoing issue outside a meeting of the university's academic council.

Now they're in the spotlight again, for allegedly asking prospective female employees about their menstrual cycles, a case raised on Friday's Morning Ireland by Sinn Fein senator Trevor O Clochartaigh.

Being mere men, the blokes in charge in Galway probably think a menstrual cycle is a new-fangled form of transport; but still, it hardly does much for the city's formerly proud reputation as Ireland's most politically correct place to live. This is Michael D's old stomping ground, dammit. How did things come to this?

Senator O Clochartaigh is probably exaggerating a little when, quoting university sources, he condemns the practice, which included asking women about their breasts too, as "bordering on misogynistic". The M word is too casually deployed these days. Suddenly everyone's a misogynist. What was wrong with "male chauvinist pig"? Or just plain old "sexist"?

It's as if the old terms for summing up men who had a problem with women being equal were no longer deemed strong enough, and had to be replaced by words with more of a hint of pathology behind them. Misogyny means a hatred of women. Literally, hatred. Asking female employees about their menstrual cycles could be called many things. Insensitive. Inappropriate. Slightly creepy. But referring to it as "hatred" is over the top.

He was surely closer to the mark when he described it as "totally out of order". Nowhere near as out of order as Sinn Fein's treatment of Mairia Cahill, for which the word "misogynistic" would not only be fitting, but possibly a little half-hearted - and I don't recall many senators or TDs from that party popping up on RTE radio to complain about it. Or, indeed, to chide their own supporters who continue to call Mairia a liar online and to spread the lie that, far from being sexually abused by an IRA member, she was in fact his teenage mistress.

Charmers, huh?

Nonetheless, two wrongs in Belfast don't make a right in Galway; and that case should be taken on its own merits. As such, there's no more excuse for asking women about their menstrual cycles than it would be to ask them about their sex lives or cup size. A person's employer has certain claims over their time and labour, not their bodies. The only answer that anyone should give to intrusive questions about their physical attributes is the same: Mind your own ruddy business.

Not that a thing being inexcusable ever stops people from trying to excuse it. Defenders of NUI Galway tried to insist last week that the questions were not being asked of prospective female employees at all, but were simply parts of a normal medical health check for workers after they've been appointed. As such, the answers are not seen by the employer, only by the university's "Occupational Health Physician", whose role it is to then assess whether the person is fit for work. They also blamed our old friend, "Health and Safety". Don't they always?

Clutching at straws, they even pointed out that male employees were asked about their prostates too, presumably in order to identify the ones who might need to pop to the bathroom more often than their colleagues. Because of course, monitoring the number of trips that someone makes to the little boy's room, as if they were in junior infants and needed a teacher's permission to pee, is an entirely proper way to treat adults.

There were undoubtedly more questions specifically directed at women than at men, though, and Senator O Clochartaigh asked the relevant question. Would a woman who has particularly heavy periods be declared a liability under this system? The university later issued a statement insisting that this was not the case, but then why ask about such things at all?

Some might say that a woman should be turned down for employment on this basis. Anyone who has a condition which predisposes them to take more time off work than another worker is bound to cause an employer more money and trouble over time. Maybe refusing to hire women whose menstrual cycles make them more liable to persistent absenteeism makes sound economic sense.

The problem is, where do you stop? Where does the proper gathering of relevant information end, and a disgraceful invasion of privacy begin? There doesn't seem to be a consistent answer to that question. What's the difference, after all, between not wanting to employ a woman who has bothersome female medical problems and so can't, by definition, be as effective in the office as one who doesn't, and taking against workers who are overweight, or heavy smokers, or who drink too much? We seem to be increasingly comfortable, in this nagging, health-Nazi age, with tut-tutting at the unhealthy. It's entirely arbitrary to say that personal questions about a man's digestive tract are acceptable, but enquiries about a woman's reproductive system are misogyny.

If I'm not allowed to be angry with Miss A because I have to cover for her a few times a month as she's laid up with her mammalian maladies, why should I be angry if I have to cover for Mr Blobby in Accounts when he can't climb the stairs without fainting like a Victorian gentlewoman who's just caught a glimpse of some chap's little chap?

The argument would surely be that Miss A can't help what ails her, whereas Mr Blobby's problems are entirely his own fault, and he could solve them by not stuffing his face with pie and cake. Likewise, for smoking and drinking. Self-inflicted ailments are not the same as involuntary ones.

But seriously, do we really want to go there? Deciding who is and is not a worthy recipient of sympathy? Judging who can and cannot be virtuously singled out and punished for their misfortunes?

As it happens, NUI Galway has now ditched the questionnaire, pending a review of the practice, but there's still no sign of them joining the 21st Century by treating its female academic staff equally. Then again, what do women expect, when they will keep falling off those menstrual cycles and hurting themselves? They only have themselves to blame.

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