- Committee member criticises publication of grievances
- Female members say debating is a “boys’ club”
The auditor of the College Historical Society (Hist) has distanced the society from comments made by a committee member unhappy with the publication last week of a list of demands to end sexism within the society. Cormac McGuinness said the statement was “not helpful” and did not represent the views of the majority of committee members.
In a statement issued to Trinity News on Thursday, a committee member wishing to remain anonymous said he wished to “give some details in order to clarify the situation and ensure journalistic accuracy and integrity.” He stated that, “Without any prior warning a potentially slanderous ‘note’ was posted and disseminated online on Wednesday morning. This note caused extreme distress to many members of committee, and left the majority angry at the manner in which things had progressed. The note damaged the good name of all the male committee members, and continues to do so.”
The statement went on to say that, “The justifications offered for the public posting of the note are felt to be untrue. In so far as the action aimed to encourage follow through on the already accepted demands, such encouragement clearly was meant to take the form of shaming people publicly. To claim anything else is patently false. This is particularly true considering that people have been named publicly without any ability to respond. There is a feeling that no response can be made publicly to what is going on because the narrative that currently pervades the Society, the GMB and College (in no small part due to the articles written by your paper) ensures that any response would leave the person likely be characterised as a misogynist, and a reactionary who doesn’t want to solve issues of sexism in the Hist. Indeed, every member of committee is willing to concede that a legacy of sexism exists in all organisations, and the Hist is no exception, and has committed to addressing any issues that exist within the society.”
Trinity News was also contacted by another male member of the society on Saturday who said that “the statement of clarification would be an important indication that the story isn’t one-sided as is commonly perceived now.” He said he was “concerned” that if the statement wasn’t published as soon as possible “a rather problematic narrative will become entrenched.”
The statement in question was issued a day after the publication of a list of demands signed by five female committee members of the society. The document referred to female members being criticised for wearing “the wrong thing”, for being “incompetent”, and being interrupted and undermined during committee meetings. It also suggested that there had been “gender-based discrimination” towards new female members.
The signatories’ demands for the introduction of an equity officer and gender quotes for future debates had been accepted at a committee meeting on Monday, but they published their requests on social media on Wednesday to highlight the issue of sexism to a wider audience.
Dee Courtney, one of the document’s signatories, told Trinity News that, “The reason we went public is because we felt it was a society as well as a committee issue. It’s important for freshers to know that things are going to change and it will be different for them if they run for committee. The reason we went public wasn’t to put pressure on people.”
Trinity News interviewed Courtney, Alex Trant, Alexa Donnelly and Naoise Dolan, four of the five signatories of the document, on Thursday about their experiences of sexism in debating. One of the major issues they related was the difficulty of being taken seriously by male debaters when raising the issue of sexism. “The debating scene can make you feel stupid for trying to bring up those small examples of sexism,” Trant said. “Several people experienced sexism but never realised it.”
Courtney added that, “Debating as a whole is so male dominated. All of the best debaters are usually male. A lot of the qualities we attribute to good debaters, like aggression, are ones we attribute to men before we do to women. The best young speakers are always the ones we consider most similar to older speakers and most of those older speakers are male. It’s really important that we’ll get to see different types of speakers because of these quotas. You often find young female debaters who stop debating after a year. There’s never a clear reason until you ask them personally, and the answer is often that they’re intimidated out of it. People have often talked about the nature of sexism [in debating], but I feel like what we’re doing now is different. We have demands which are going to be able to change things.”
Courtney also addressed questions about the necessity of gender quotes. “We noticed that the number of women speaking at debates has gotten lower and lower this year. Out of the three previous debates [before Wednesday’s gender quotes debate], there was only one female speaker. We’ve talked to women who are very good debaters but have been turned off because it’s a boys’ club. No-one wants to be the token woman in the debate who everyone treats as the token woman.”
She went on to relate the wider problem of sexism in debating to the competitive culture of private Dublin schools. “The best schools, the schools that win [second-level debating competitions] are private, all-boys schools from south Dublin. They have debating coaches who teach them how to debate, how to talk about feminism, but they don’t have any contact with women in education, and their contact with women in their daily lives is limited to social events. So I do think it starts at schools where there’s a culture of having to be the most confident and knowing the most and winning competitions. These debater schools are boys’ clubs. Even the girls who win are usually from south Dublin private schools as well. It’s rare to see anyone from public school breaking through, and that continues on into college.”
Auditor Cormac McGuinness has since told Trinity News that, “Some of the issues [discussed by the signatories] were raised previously, and attempts were made to address them obviously weren’t always effective. Admittedly some of those issues were flagged as general problems, as distinct from specifically ones related to sexism (e.g. conduct in meetings). It’s worth remembering that once the extent of the problem was pointed out in a committee meeting in the understanding that they were unintentionally sexist, we unanimously agreed to adopt the demands, and are firmly committed to a long term change in our culture.”
He said, “A lot of the more subtle forms of sexism are ones that usually correct themselves after being pointed out. For those that persist the committee has agreed to identify it as a problem and deal with it accordingly. Considering that it is such a big issue now, subtly sexist behaviour is likely to be picked up on.”
McGuinness was also careful to point out that the signatories had not accused the majority of committee members of being sexist. “The unintended negative consequences [of the note] have unfortunately caused some distress to certain people wrongly being labelled as sexist,” he said. “This is mainly a result of people half reading or half hearing the story and understanding that all men on committee were rampant sexists, and/or that the note was intended to shame those involved. This is untrue, as stated by Naoise Dolan [on Facebook] on behalf of the signatories.”