Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin: I was told reporting my harasser would damage his career

The broadcaster and academic spoke to Róisín Ingle at The Irish Times Big Night In

Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin recalls a moment when her colleagues at UCD found out about her experience of stalking and harassment at the hands of a fellow male academic.

“One of them said, I don’t think you should be in your office without the door being locked,” the broadcaster and academic told Róisín Ingle at an online event, The Irish Times Women’s Podcast Big Night In, on Saturday night.

“I got used to working with the door locked, and one day he just started knocking on the door, and came back a couple of times. It was really hard, but really, really unnerving. And at the time I thought, ‘I don’t want to make a big deal out of this. I wasn’t on a permanent contract with them, and I was very junior and I wanted to stay and I wanted to get this permanent job so I didn’t want to make a fuss.”

Ní Shúilleabháin endured two years of workplace harassment and stalking, and at one point considered abandoning her considerable academic career in UCD, where she is an assistant professor of mathematics and director of the BSc. Science, Mathematics & Education programmes in the College of Science.

In the hour-long conversation with Ingle, Ní Shúilleabháin recalled a moment in which her harasser followed her to Inchydoney in Cork, on a girls’ weekend: “He arrived at the hotel with a bouquet of flowers, and when we told the [front desk] manager to tell him that we’d gone for the day, she said, ‘he knows you’re not, as your car is still here. That freaked me out.”

In late 2019, Prof Hans-Benjamin Braun, 58, was charged with harassment under section 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act, 1997. The court heard the harassment took place between May 9th, 2015, and July 7th, 2017, and issued an order barring the professor from contacting Ní Shúilleabháin for five years.

Ní Shúilleabháin revealed that she had reported the incidents to university authorities early on.

“I began second guessing myself, because if they don’t think it’s a big deal, then it maybe it’s not a big deal,” she noted. “It was said to me that if I did want to make a formal complaint, it would be my word against his.

“[Another] person said to me that this could be very damaging for his career,” Ní Shúilleabháin added. “I was just like, ‘this is never going to happen to another person in UCD. Not on your life’”.

Ní Shúilleabháin spoke with Irish Times journalist Una Mullally about the experience in an article in September 2020.

“I guess I was frustrated with how that was being reacted to and maybe the speed with which things were happening and that’s why I decided that I would speak to [Una Mullally] about it,” she recalls. “And they did seem to get the ball rolling on some things. It certainly shone a spotlight on an issue, because so many people have contacted me since then from other institutions. This is a really big problem unfortunately.”

Elsewhere in the conversation, Ní Shúilleabháin observed that the pandemic has highlighted the shortcomings in the Irish education system.

“I think we need an overhaul of our education system,” she noted. “How we manage our education system and how we look at information in our education, and how we support teachers in teaching our students. I don’t think it’s benefited our young people to have [the pandemic] go on for so long. It has put a lot of burden, unnecessary burden, on families.”

Referring to how maths is taught in Irish schools, Ní Shúilleabháin said: “Up until the 1950s we had a mathematics exam that was for girls only, which was about calculating your carpet and kind of what ingredients you needed for particular recipes with that. Mathematics is very gendered in this country.

“One of my favourite things to say is there’s no such thing as a maths gene. Some people might be more open to learning it, if they’re in an environment where they’ve been exposed to it more. During my own Leaving Cert, I missed a couple of days or something and I missed trigonometry, and I just didn’t get it. I was like, ‘well that’s it, I’m not an honours maths girl’, so I’m just going to go to ordinary level like everybody else. Thankfully, my dad said, ‘no, you’re not allowed to’.”

Ní Shúilleabháin notes that her father was also the man behind her application to the Rose of Tralee competition, which she won as the Mayo Rose in 2005.

“I had a tongue piercing, wore Doc Martens and all my clothes were from secondhand shops,” she recalls. “I was studying for my last exam in college and my dad rang me to say, ‘you have to come home next week… ‘I’ve entered you into the Rose of Tralee competition’. When I asked him why he did that, he said, ‘Well, I paid the €100 deposit, unless you want that to go to waste’.”

The Women's Podcast Big Night In, featuring Róisín Ingle in conversation with a number of influential women in front of a live audience, takes place online every fortnight until May 15th. Future interviewees include Tolü Makay and Maeve Higgins. A €50 ticket (€25 for Irish Times digital subscribers) gives access to all six events. Details and tickets here.

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