Friday 24 May 2019

Women's next great battle is winning the right to be just as useless as men

Women shouldn't have to prove that they'd bring something amazing to the party before getting an invitation, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

FOUNDER: Joe Mulholland of the MacGill Summer School
FOUNDER: Joe Mulholland of the MacGill Summer School

It is ironic to hear Joe Mulholland, former managing director of television at RTE, and founding guru of the MacGill Summer School in Co Donegal, announce on radio that he doesn't believe in positive discrimination when he has been a beneficiary of it his entire life simply by virtue of being a man.

Which is not to say he was given the prestigious positions which he's occupied during a long life in the Irish public eye solely because he's a man. It's more that men like Mulholland have never faced a single obstacle to getting where they are as a result of being men, and never had to worry that being men would prove a hurdle.

That kind of unearned privilege is all the more powerful for being almost invisible, which must be why Mulholland so spectacularly failed to see it until it was pointed out to him by two women, namely Catherine Murphy and Roisin Shortall of the Social Democrats, who withdrew from panels at the summer school in protest at a gender imbalance which would have seen only 12 women taking part, compared with 44 men.

Mulholland has since said sorry, backpedalling faster than a Tour de France cyclist at the sight of an unexpected visit from the anti- doping unit, because that's what you do these days when you're in the eye of a media storm. Having come through the Iron Age and Space Age, the world is now firmly in the Age of the Frantic Apology.

And to his credit, he does sound sincere about learning from the debacle. MacGill is not a huge outfit; as the former RTE man has pointed out, a lot of the donkey work of organising events is done by him sitting alone at a laptop. Getting it right every time can't be easy. It's also important not to disappear down a rabbit hole of identity politics, where every act or gesture comes under hostile scrutiny to ensure it measures up to the expectations of the small army of permanently angry social justice warriors thronging social media.

But it does definitely matter that such a glaring gender imbalance exists at events with the prestige of the MacGill Summer School, not only this year, but previously as well, as a glance down the extensive alphabetical list of past speakers on the summer school's own website quickly confirms.

The gathering held each year in Glenties, Co Donegal, is not just any old summer school, after all. What happens at MacGill doesn't stay at MacGill, but tends to make national headlines. And that's because, as Sinn Fein's Eoin O Broin identified a few years ago while taking part in a panel discussion at the summer school itself, MacGill represents nothing less than the "political and media establishment talking to themselves".

There are few things on this earth which are less of a threat to the status quo than the MacGill Summer School. It's as comfortable as a pair of old slippers. Put it this way: if revolution ever does break out in Ireland, it won't start at Glenties in July, and I know many of the activists and trade unionists and left-wing academics who've delivered papers to the summer school down the years will hate to think of themselves as being pillars of the establishment in this way, but, well, they are. They're only there to play their allotted part in an ancient choreographed game.

The list of papers delivered down the years at MacGill by the leading lights of this soporific conformity couldn't be more drearily predictable. Even the theme of this year's programme (The Future of Ireland in a New Europe: The Challenges Ahead) sounds as if it was settled on after being spat out by a random phrases generator.

This is what happens when you spend too long indoors reading back issues of The Irish Times rather than engaging with the real world. You start to take these ridiculous individuals almost as seriously as they take themselves.

As long as MacGill represents that cosseted clique, then its panels will, by definition, remain overwhelming male, because men are disproportionately ensconced in those cosy circles of power.

And don't get me wrong. It's not that I think female politicians and media junkies and academics would be any better, because there's not much evidence that this would happen either. No one is exactly blown away by the intellectual prowess firing away inside female-led hive minds such as the National Women's Council.

There would be no greater insight or wisdom at MacGill if more women were invited; the conversations would be every bit as smug and predictable and self-serving as they are now. The only difference is that there would be more women around the place, and that's fine. Women shouldn't have to prove that they'll bring anything amazing to the party in order to earn the right to be there.

So-so men don't have to vault that impossible hurdle, or they wouldn't be there either. Why should so-so women?

For years I held out against the idea of gender quotas and positive discrimination, because it seemed such a slight to women that they might need a leg up, rather than succeeding on, for want of a better word, "aptitude".

Increasingly, though, the argument against positive discrimination has lost its old persuasiveness.

If women are so invisible that MacGill doesn't even notice when they're not around, then maybe these venerable institutions need the catalyst for change that having some human beings with a pair of XX rather than XY chromosomes imposed on them would provide.

To put it another way, I've come round to the idea not because I think more women would make anything better, but simply because they have every right to be equally as bad as the men who got there before them, who've already made it, especially when those men have the self-deluded cheek to believe they got where they are on merit. Seriously, boys, leave the comedy to Dara O Briain.

What an insult to women who haven't been invited to sit at the top table of Irish society to be repeatedly told it's only because they've failed to reach some required standard of excellence, when the men who've bagged all the best chairs are such staggeringly unimpressive specimens.

That's the next great equal rights battle: winning the right to be as mediocre, undistinguished, unimaginative, incompetent, lacklustre, long-winded, dull as dishwater and second-rate as the dime-a-dozen men who run the world, and then get together each summer across Ireland to bore one another senseless with more blah blah over a glass of warm prosecco.

It's not as if these "male, pale and stale" masters of the universe are so impressive at what they do that it would be courting disaster for women to take their places.

We just want the right to be female, pale and stale, too. It hardly sounds unreasonable when you put it like that.

Sunday Independent

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