MacGill Summer School: Will the gender blindness never end?

Listening to the man from MacGill you might conclude women have nothing much to say, or don’t want to say it

Some of the male participants scheduled to speak at the MacGill Summer School

The theme of this year's MacGill Summer School is "the future of Ireland in a new Europe. " Women, you might be forgiven for thinking, will play a significant role in that future.

After all, we make up slightly more than half the Irish population. The referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment passed with an astounding 66 per cent majority, largely on the strength of the women who were brave enough to tell their stories. Internationally, the #MeToo movement has shown that women have had enough of being sidelined, silenced, harassed, belittled and diminished in the workplace and in society.

But there is plenty of evidence, too, of how far we still have to go: the controversy over women with cervical cancer not being informed that they had in the past been given incorrect smear results; the gender imbalance in decision-making structures; and the fact that 98 per cent of those responsible for looking after the home and family are women.

The implication seemed clear: women either aren't coming forward, or don't have the "correct aptitude" to take part

The MacGill Summer School 2018, which bills itself as an event at which “over fifty eminent and highly qualified contributors who will look at and analyse . . . issues in a dispassionate and informed manner” would, you might speculate, be an excellent moment to reflect on whether and how the events of the past year might shape Ireland’s future as a more gender equal society.


You might think all of these things, but apparently the organisers of the MacGill Summer School did not. Last week, an advertising image for the school, across which the faces of 24 chaps were emblazoned, went viral on social media. Predictably, people were perturbed. Where were the women, they wondered.

Ben Tonra, Jean Monnet Professor of European Foreign, Security and Defence Policy at UCD, threatened to pull out unless the organisers got it sorted. "Fix it @MacGillSummerSc fix it now or I'm not coming. Full stop. No debate," he tweeted.

Organiser Joe Mulholland responded to say that it is MacGill's policy "to have as many women as possible." But, he added, "certain difficulties have to be taken into account. At times it is difficult to find the person with the correct aptitude for some of the topics that are discussed in sessions. An effort is always made to ensure as many women as possible are included."

The implication seemed clear: women either aren't coming forward, or don't have the "correct aptitude" to take part. He later apologised on the Sean O'Rourke programme on RTÉ Radio One for using the word "aptitude". "That was a totally wrong term to use and I apologise for that and I withdraw it . . . maybe the right qualifications or whatever, but it's sometimes difficult," he said, adding that he had done his best.

Gender balance

His best means that 25 per cent of the roughly 45 speakers are women, and include such eminent and highly qualified contributors as Prof Brigid Laffan, Claire Hanna of the SDLP, Michelle O'Neill of Sinn Féin, Mairead McGuinness MEP, journalists Susan Mitchell, Ingrid Miley and Dearbhail McDonald, campaigner Vicky Phelan and Catherine Murphy and Róisín Shortall of the Social Democrats. The latter two have since said they will pull out unless the gender balance is redressed.

A glance at the programme reveals just a single woman on the vast majority of panels. It also reveals not a single discussion on the implications of the political earthquake that was the decision to repeal the Eighth Amendment. Still, one in four female speakers makes it far from the worst example of its kind. It’s just a shame none was considered enough of a crowd-pleaser to make it into the marketing blurb.

Believe me when I say no woman wants to be the "token female" on the panel

MacGill isn't the only culprit in this regard. Last year, the Restaurants Association of Ireland came under criticism for originally having no women included on the panel to cook at its award night. The question of why there aren't more women included in festival line-ups has become a summer fixture as reliable as Leaving Cert sunshine. In 2016, the Late Late Show was criticised for an imbalance in its line-up of guests, something it appears to have since redressed. It's worth noting that RTÉ now has three regular female news anchors across the main bulletins, even if they aren't being paid as much as their male counterparts.

Nor is it a uniquely Irish phenomenon. Almost on a weekly basis some all-male panel or "manel" takes place somewhere to discuss the implications of Brexit – last week there was one at the University of London with 13 speakers, all male. In January, the Consumer Electronic Show, the biggest tech convention in the world, had only male keynote speakers for the second year in a row. Stanford University hosted a history conference where in March at which all 30 speakers were male. One study of TED talks found male speakers outnumber females by a ratio of 3 to 1. At Davos in 2016, not an event known for its highly developed sense of irony, there was even an all male panel on the theme of "When Women Thrive".


This lingering gender blindness isn't just evidence in panel discussions either. Two weeks ago, Marian Keyes called out the Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction, which has only gone to a woman three times in 18 years. "Say what you like about me but my books are funny. What more can I do to qualify?" she wondered, quite rightly, at the Hay Festival.

Listening to the explanations for MacGill and others you might just be forgiven for concluding that women must have nothing much to say, or don’t want to say it. Yet, InspireFest international festival of technology, science, design and the arts – which takes place this week in Dublin – never seems to have any such issues. Out of 51 speakers lined up for this year, 36 are women.

At last weekend’s Dalkey Book Festival, which is about much more than books, covering politics, psychology, philosophy, #MeToo and Brexit (full disclosure: I was a panellist and moderator at several events), the organiser Sian Smyth never seems to have any difficulty finding women to take part either. Out of roughly 115 speakers, I counted 51 women.

Manels will continue until men stop participating in them

It shouldn’t be a number games, but until those numbers start evening up across the board, it’s a useful way of keeping score. Believe me when I say no woman wants to be the “token female” on the panel. (And, organisers, we can always tell – usually because your email has arrived last minute and features a vague request for participation, without saying – other than the existence of our ovaries – why you think we’d be a worthwhile addition to the discussion.)

But if it’s a choice between being the token female, and having no female participation, we’ll usually make the pragmatic decision, grit our teeth, grind our ovaries and determine to do our best to make an impact as the former.

One of the panels I was on at Dalkey, about the #MeToo movement, was made up entirely of women. Backstage, in the green room, my fellow panellists – author Lionel Shriver, North Korean journalist Suki Kim, Dearbhail McDonald – debated whether a man should have been included. I doubt that happens too often in the green room at manels.

And that’s the crux of the issue. Manels will continue until men stop participating in them. Until more men, like Ben Tonra, start taking a stand and refusing to participate in significant discussions about politics, culture and society unless women are given a place at the table, progress towards gender equality will continue to be glacial.