Micheline Sheehy Skeffington: ‘I’m from a family of feminists. I took this case to honour them’

The academic has won a landmark Equality Tribunal case against her former employer, NUI Galway, for discrimination in not promoting her. Women know why she took the case. ‘Men don’t get it,’ she says

Micheline Sheehy Skeffington: the botanist will use her €70,000 award to help the five other women who were also shortlisted for promotion with her but got no further in the process. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Micheline Sheehy Skeffington: the botanist will use her €70,000 award to help the five other women who were also shortlisted for promotion with her but got no further in the process. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

 

Towards the end of November Dr Micheline Sheehy Skeffington won a landmark case against her former employer of 34 years, NUI Galway. The Equality Tribunal found that the university had discriminated against the botanist for promotion because of her gender. Almost immediately after the ruling was made public, and the university had said it would not be appealing, Sheehy Skeffington went to England on a week-long silent retreat. It was only on Monday this week that she realised that dozens of voicemail messages and hundreds of emails were waiting for her.

“I haven’t had a chance to read them all yet,” she says, two days later, back in Galway. The emails and voicemails she has gone through so far include congratulations on taking and winning the case, from members of the public and from female colleagues. “It’s been mostly women getting in contact. Men don’t get it. Women know exactly what this case is about,” she says.

The messages also include some requests for advice from other women academics who are considering taking similar action as a result of her case.

This week the Higher Education Authority revealed that women are overwhelmingly under-represented in senior academic roles in third-level institutions in Ireland. Of the percentages of these roles held by women, NUIG came a definitive last of the institutions examined. It scored lowest, with only 21 per cent of women recorded as holding senior posts. Other third-level institutions that the HEA examined included University College Cork, which came in next lowest, with 27 per cent of women in senior posts, followed by Maynooth University, at 28 per cent, University College Dublin, at 29 per cent, and Trinity College Dublin, at 33 per cent.

Sheehy Skeffington, who is 61, joined NUIG in 1990 as a lecturer. Over time she applied for promotion to the next level, a senior lectureship. “Of course you don’t expect to be promoted the first time you go for it,” she says. By the time the 2008-9 round of promotions came up, it was the fourth time since 2000 that she had applied.

“There were 46 people from across campus who went for promotion to senior lectureship in the 2008 round,” she says. Of those candidates, 23 men and seven women were shortlisted for interview, of whom Sheehy Skeffington was one. By the end of the selection process, in 2009, 16 men and one woman had been promoted.

“I heard in May 2009 that I had been unsuccessful,” she says. “I discovered that 16 men had been promoted and only one woman. It seemed to me that something was wrong. It seemed obvious to me then that I should question it. I appealed to the college first. During that process I was advised to lodge an appeal with the Equality Tribunal.”

Famous grandmother

Sheehy Skeffington bears a distinct physical resemblance to her famous grandmother, the suffragette Hanna Sheehy Skeffington. “My family history of trying to address injustice was part of the reason I took this case. I’d never have taken it if it was just about me,” she says. “I believed I was representing discrimination against women in general. I have it in the genes. If I see an injustice I have to do something about it.”

Sheehy Skeffington’s barrister told her that the burden of proof was on her to provide information that showed she was a better candidate than any of the promoted 17, so she worked on collating as much evidence as she could. Building her case required time, energy and determination. “It takes a bit of grit to see the whole thing through.” As far as she knows, hers is the first such case to be taken successfully against NUIG. “I am not aware of any other similar cases in the past. If there were, those women didn’t win them.”

It is also expensive to take any legal case. “I don’t want to say how much it was, but it was a lot of money. The Siptu branch at NUIG helped me substantially, and I paid for the rest from my savings. I live frugally. I’ve never had a lavish lifestyle.”

It can take years for cases to come before the Equality Tribunal. In September this year Sheehy Skeffington decided to take early retirement. By the time she won her case she was no longer an employee of the university, a fact she acknowledges has made it easier to speak out.

Would she have taken the case if she had been midway through her career rather than coming towards retirement? “If I had a full career ahead of me, would I have done it? I don’t know,” she says. “Let’s be honest. No employer is going to want bad publicity from their employees, but I think NUIG have been honourable in admitting things now need to be made better.”

In its rebuttal of the case NUIG had argued that its promotion process was “fair and transparent” and that it utterly rejected “any allegation of discrimination on the ground of gender”. But the Equality Tribunal was unequivocal in its criticism of NUIG’s promotion process, describing it bluntly as “ramshackle”.

Its report went on to state: “Perhaps the most significant frailty to the respondent’s rebuttal is the statistical evidence.” A table illustrated that, between 2001 and 2009, there had been 132 applications for the post of senior lecturer at the Galway campus; 97 men and 35 women. Of those, 50 men had been successful, compared with only 11 women. “It is clear from the . . . table that male applicants have a one in two chance of being promoted to senior lecturer, while women who apply have less than a one in three chance of the same promotion.”

NUIG was ordered to promote Sheehy Skeffington to senior lecturer from July 2009, to pay her in full the salary difference, and to award her a tax-free €70,000. The university was also ordered to review its “policies and procedures in relation to promotion to senior lecturer to ensure they are in compliance with these acts with particular reference to the gender ground”. In addition, it must report back to the tribunal on its progress within a year.

Gender equality

Sheehy Skeffington believes her case has put down a marker for the importance of gender equality in promotion at third-level institutions. “I believe that from all the feedback I’m getting. My case is now on record, and it can be referred to in the future by other people. Other women in the same situation may be encouraged to see it’s possible to address these issues.

“The success of me winning this case was an immediate thing, but until equality is achieved nationally I still won’t have done this on behalf of other women. I’m a feminist. I come from a family of feminists. I had to take this case to honour them all.”

On Thursday, Sheehy Skeffington announced that she would use her €70,000 award to help the five other women who were also shortlisted for promotion with her but got no further in the process. All six turned up for a photo call at the university.

The five are Dr Róisín Healy, a history lecturer, Dr Elizabeth Tilley, an English lecturer, Dr Adrienne Gorman, a biochemistry lecturer, Dr Sylvie Lannegrand, a French lecturer, and Dr Margaret Hodgins, a health-sciences lecturer. They all believe they were also discriminated against, and are taking legal advice. They have accepted an offer to meet the president of NUIG, Dr Jim Browne.

Also on Thursday, Browne issued a statement to The Irish Times. “The university accepts unreservedly the decision of the Equality Tribunal in relation to its 2008/09 Senior Lecturer promotion round and is taking immediate steps to implement the Tribunal’s findings.”

It also said: “The university views the issue of gender equality very seriously and recognises that the Irish Higher Education sector as a whole has a poor record on the promotion of women into senior roles.”

It ended: “The university is setting up a task force to review its practices with regard to gender equality. Dr Sheehy Skeffington has volunteered to work with the university to improve its policies and procedures, and the university will take up her kind offer.”

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