It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that the first woman to be elected to a certain office will be subject to more scrutiny than her male predecessors. Supposedly acting as a litmus test for the suitability of any and every woman for the role, the first woman will be watched carefully by those waiting to seize upon something that can be used to justify their assumptions about women in general.
“The reality of women’s experience in public office is often harsh and unforgiving, as illustrated by the level of online abuse to which many are subjected: abuse that is often directed at their personalities or appearances rather than their policies or actions.”
The reality of women’s experience in public office is often harsh and unforgiving, as illustrated by the level of online abuse to which many are subjected: abuse that is often directed at their personalities or appearances rather than their policies or actions. However, all this is not to say that we should hold our next provost to lower levels of scrutiny than we would their predecessors simply by virtue of the fact that it is almost certain they will be a woman. Rather, we should use this historic moment to push for real improvements and change. While the election of a woman as provost represents an important step forward for a university that did not admit women until 1903, this does not automatically mean that it is a victory for those seeking to eliminate gender biases in academia. Nor does it necessarily follow that the University will automatically proceed in a different direction than it has during Patrick Prendergast’s tenure. As much as we might hope that the election of Professor Ohlmeyer, Professor Hogan, Dr Alyn-Stacey or Professor Doyle will lead to tangible improvements, we cannot take this for granted.
“In many syllabi, there is a significant gender gap in course content, with the male experience centred as the default and the female treated as niche.”
A key issue-area in which we might hope to see improvements during the tenure of the next provost is, as mentioned, the pervasive gender biases in academia, both in Trinity and further afield. While there have been vast increases in the number of women choosing to attend university over the last number of decades, there are significant gender disparities remaining in academia on both a teaching and a research level. In many syllabi, there is a significant gender gap in course content, with the male experience centred as the default and the female treated as niche. This is seen particularly clearly in the social sciences, where students taking year-long classes on social or political theory might be so lucky as to have one whole week dedicated to “women” or “feminism”.
Not only do “women’s issues” find themselves relegated to the position of afterthought, female authors are often disproportionately under-represented on course reading lists. Some quick, or if we’re being honest, hours’ worth of calculations of the composition of two political science reading lists in the last semester revealed that female authors made up 23.8% of total authors listed on one reading list, and, wait for it, 13.6% of the other. While this may not be a representative sample, it warrants further investigation, and it is something the next provost could and should instigate. If this trend is found to be repeated across modules and disciplines, it would indicate a serious knowledge gap in the content of courses in the University. This has two main effects. First, it could lead to the disengagement and disillusionment of female students, which would then discourage them from continuing with certain subjects. This, in turn, perpetuates male dominance in certain fields, and the vicious cycle begins again. Second, the knowledge gap leads to a deficit in information in the application of University teachings beyond a university’s context. This is applicable to areas as diverse as policymaking, medicine, design, and a whole host of other fields.
Addressing the lack of female writers and thinkers in Trinity’s syllabi is not merely an exercise in “wokeness”. Rather, it is a crucial step in ensuring the academic rigour of courses taught in Trinity and in ensuring that the university’s graduates leave with a more complete understanding of their chosen field, and of the world in general. While individual schools and lecturers have a great deal of power in setting syllabi, Trinity’s next provost, whoever they may be, should encourage, if not mandate, those who construct syllabi to undertake an evaluation of their content and implement any necessary reforms.
On a research level, female academics often face greater barriers to publication than their male counterparts. These barriers range from implicit constraints on the amount of time they can allocate to research and writing, to explicit biases in selection for publication. The next provost of Trinity can do two main things to help dismantle these barriers, to which the University governance should be responsive. First, they can advocate for greater use of blind review systems in academic journals and publications, coordinating academics in a concerted call for the introduction of these systems where they are not already in place. Second, they can seek reviews of work allocations within schools and departments to ensure that they are fair and equitable. As a research-driven university, it is vital that Trinity acts as a leader in achieving gender equality in this area.
“It is important, however, that we do not assume that the first woman elected as provost will (or, indeed, should) focus solely on “women’s issues”.”
It is important, however, that we do not assume that the first woman elected as provost will (or, indeed, should) focus solely on “women’s issues”. There are a number of important issues, such as the issue of climate action and sustainability, that have been raised by students and staff alike. As much as the election of a woman as provost represents a milestone in terms of gender equality in academia, it also represents an opportunity for the next provost to make the role their own by becoming a leader in these areas.
Whoever is elected, they have the potential to make a real and lasting impact on the trajectory of Trinity College. By seeking to bring about the positive changes discussed, Trinity’s next provost can vastly improve both the University’s academic standing and the experience of its students and staff. In order for Trinity to “inspire generations”, it must be at the forefront of including more diverse perspectives and promoting cutting-edge research. It must seek to ensure that all students and staff can flourish, academically, professionally, and personally, and it must work to eliminate persistent obstacles to this flourishing.