Of sixteen women who applied for senior lectureship in NUIG during 2009, only one was promoted. As the resulting verdict of Dr Sheehy Skeffington’s discrimination case reverberates at NUIG, Simon Price dives into the murkier side of the Corrib university and asks what’s changed in 2015?
The new engineering building stands at the gateway to NUIG’s north campus on the river Corrib. Opened in 2010 and conscious of its purpose, it is equipped with “climate wall construction, natural ventilation, rainwater harvesting and a biomass boiler for energy generation”. All very state of the art.
In four stories of glass and steel it is the embodiment of the aspirational and thoroughly modern university. On the corridor inside hangs an oil painting of one their most remarkable students. Alice Perry graduated with first class honours in 1906. The first woman to hold an engineering degree in Ireland or Britain. Her portrait is as much part of history as it is of the image NUIG hope to project.
Late last year the university was instructed to promote Dr Micheline Sheehy Skeffington because of an internal 2009 interview process that has been described as “discourteous” and “ramshackle” by the Equality Tribunal. Speaking to rabble recently, the botanist said “it is even debatable that we could have been promoted in 2007. I am convinced that I should have been”.
Compounding all this, it was found that the college had discriminated against Dr Sheehy Skeffington on gender grounds.
The figures need to be emphasised here. Of sixteen women who applied for seniour lecureship in 2009, only one was promoted. In contrast, sixteen of the thirty-two male candidates were successful. This is reflected in the process itself where the tribunal has underlined the difference between gender representation and gender balance – noting that there was only one woman on the interview board of seven.
All this adds to the current situation where women account for over half of Galway’s lecturers but only 13% of professors. Curiously and in their own words “worryingly”, the tribunal discovered that one of the men promoted was not even eligible for the competition.
Despite vehemently contesting the case, initially stating that it “utterly refutes any allegation of discrimination”, the university publicly and “unreservedly” accepted the ruling on the day it hit national headlines.
This has since proven to be an exercise in damage limitation. An effort to avoid further scrutiny. Dr Sheehy Skeffington has exposed an institutional problem in Galway as behind the scenes a very institutional response unfolds.
The pace of change is slow, a task force selected and defined by management will not report for another twelve months. While not rowing back on their obligations under Sheehy Skeffington’s case, the university has attempted to impose their own spin on events through omission and cherry-picking.
There is a resistance to acknowledge the wrong committed on their own part and face up to its deeper implications. There is an attitude that is both stubborn and unserious. One that suggests management of this learned institution are not keen on their own lessons.
While the tribunal examined only one case, the ruling lists at least ten instances of discrimination that do not apply to Sheehy Skeffington alone. It is reasonable to conclude that others have encountered similar obstacles and the university is currently facing a further five women with retrospective claims.
A campaign is under way led by staff, students, alumni and Sheehy Skeffington herself.
“I was awarded damages, but the five women aren’t concerned with damages, all they want is recognition of their due and promotion backdated to 2009”.
However, similar patterns of resistance are starting to emerge.
Towards the end of March, President Jim Browne launched his legacy. A “five year strategic plan” aimed at catapulting the university into the global top 200. Among his ‘major goals’ is a commitment “to making real and lasting changes to career development and advancement for women at our university”.
That same week, management circulated an email which Dr Sheehy Skeffington says “deliberately misinforms concerning the case being taken by the five female lecturers who, like me, were shortlisted but not promoted to Senior Lecturer in 2009” and that “the time-line given as background in the document implies that they are only taking a case concerning the 2013/14 round, whereas the management know full well that the women’s principal intention is to contest the 2008/9 round, where the gender discrimination is at its worst.”
Furthermore, there is an insistence that management simply does not have power to address concerns. Men with grand titles and responsibility, the corresponding robes and salary but no power to act, we are told.
Despite systemic shortcomings being highlighted and this criticism being accepted only a few months ago, they continue to hide behind the system, behind legal advice and behind procedure as a way avoiding immediate action and genuine engagement.
All this points to, at best, a lack of commitment on the university’s part or at worst, it reveals a mindset of male ignorance or even hostility. Where in 2015, a University Management Team is comprised of six men and a single woman.
Where the Academic Council is 81% male. Where it is permissible to openly joke about female colleagues not working hard enough or spending too much time with their family. Where clearly, the lads and their ‘banter’ are not confined to undergrads.
In this male dominated environment, Dr Sheehy Skeffington and her colleagues are unlikely to be the last to find issues unnoticed by others.
“I think they underestimated the nature of the problem and the depth of feeling there is in this university about a whole load of things. It isn’t just gender related, there are a lot of issues with which people feel disaffected, downtrodden and powerless. And this has been going on for years”.
She was part of an internal equality committee that made recommendations in 1990. Twenty five years later, a different age in terms of recognition of women in the workforce, the Equality Tribunal in her own case still found a gaping disparity between how NUIG’s internal processes look on paper and its implementation.
How much more credible can today’s assurances be?