by Kelly Coate
The granddaughter of a famous Irish suffragette has won a landmark gender discrimination case against the National University of Ireland, Galway. Micheline Sheehy Skeffington took the case against NUIG after 4 unsuccessful attempts to be promoted to Senior Lecturer over a period of 20 years. NUIG unfortunately has one of the worst records amongst European universities for promoting women, and Micheline’s victory is a very significant step towards paving the way for change. In the 2009 promotions round which prompted her to take action, only 1 female applicant was promoted amongst the group of 17 academics who achieved Senior Lectureship status. The latest figures show that only 13 percent of professors in NUIG are female, and only 30 percent of Senior Lecturers are women. Clearly, there is quite a bit of room for improvement.
Micheline’s victory alone is a hugely encouraging sign, but her subsequent actions have shown that feminist activism can still be a positive force within academia. She is donating her award of 70,000 euros to the legal challenges of 5 female colleagues who were similarly denied promotions through the promotions process that the Tribunal found to be discriminatory and ‘ramshackle’. Micheline also refused to join the University President’s proposed ‘task force’ on gender inequality unless he meets certain demands (see michelinesthreeconditions.wordpress.com), one of which is promoting the 5 women instead of facing them in court. In response, the President apparently withdrew the invitation for her to sit on the task force. Given that NUIG has already had at least two working groups on gender inequality in previous years, it is very heartening that women staff and students are now demanding less talk amongst senior managers and more concrete action.
The senior management team of NUIG face an interesting choice. They can continue the legal battles, which are significant. Micheline’s case was not the only successful legal challenge by a female academic who claimed discrimination in the 2009 promotions round, but the university management have decided to appeal against the other decision, which will continue to drag through the courts. They now face legal challenges from the 5 women who Micheline is supporting, and who were not only shortlisted and unsuccessful in the 2009 promotions round, but (rather insultingly) were once again shortlisted and unsuccessful in the most recent 2014 round of promotions. In addition, all of those applicants who were shortlisted but unsuccessful in the 2014 round appealed the decision.
Rather than face these protracted and painfully demoralising battles, the senior management team could respond positively to the significant pressure for change coming from staff and students. They could proudly make gender equality a priority that runs all the way through university decision-making processes and they could champion gender equality within all aspects of their activities. After all, MIT embraced a similar initiative and has received much positive international recognition as a result (as well as successfully increasing the numbers of women in senior positions). It would not be an easy road but a proactive, positive response seems much more preferable then the endless dissection in the courts and the media of the many ways in which the promotions process discriminates against women in NUIG.
As a former member of academic staff in NUIG, there are several aspects to these developments that have given me moments of complete pride at the fact that I worked with Micheline and her colleagues. While at NUIG, I gained some knowledge of what it feels like to hit your head – hard – on a glass ceiling. The dawning realisation that your chances of promotion are slim to non-existent simply on the basis of your gender is an awful experience, yet it is unfortunately a common experience for women in academia and one that we need to fight. I also feel proud of the students who are speaking out, signing petitions and organising events in support of these women. They realise that they too lose out from discriminatory practices, both in the current environment and in their future careers. It is simply indefensible that in a university with 15,000 students, most of them will never see or meet a female professor.
Finally, I am rather in awe of Micheline, who has resurrected the spirit of her suffragette grandmother by taking on – at a significant personal cost – a daunting legal challenge. Not only did she do everything she could to fight and win, she is now giving everything she can to support the fight of others. She is turning her individual fight into a collective call for action. I think for all of us who hope that being a feminist academic is not a contradiction in terms, Micheline is showing us what can happen when we take a stand. Please visit her website and sign her petition.
About the author:
Kelly Coate is a Senior Lecturer in Higher Education at Kings College London and Director of the Kings Learning Institute. She was previously a Lecturer in Higher Education at the National University of Ireland, Galway. She sits on the Governing Council of the Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE) and is on the editorial boards of the Journal of Education Policy, Teaching in Higher Education, and Higher Education Research and Development.
Kelly has written about gender and academic labour, including a new article in BJSE: Coate, K. and Kandikow Howson (2014) Indicators of Esteem: Gender and Prestige in Academic Work. British Journal of Sociology of Education. DOI:10.1080/01425692.2014.955082