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‘Zero tolerance’ a little too late

On the Edge

On The Edge
Áine Ryan

IT was certainly a story none of us expected to be reading. A high-profile university lecturer is sexually harassed by a colleague for two whole years and is ultimately forced to resort to reporting his actions to An Garda Síochána and then endure a legal process before she is freed of his unwanted attentions.
No, this is not an episode from Endeavour Morse’s travails on a campus in 1960s Oxford.
Nor is it a story told by suffragettes during the Victorian era when women still did not have the right to vote. It didn’t happen either when women were still ‘churched’ after childbirth in the Ireland of Archbishop Charles McQuaid or, indeed, were not permitted to join certain golf clubs or drink in some pubs.
Feminism has failed abysmally if Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin’s harrowing story of being harassed is representative of a culture that still exists on our third-level campuses. It has failed absolutely when those in power on these campuses only acted decisively at the eleventh hour, whilst issuing an apology after they are shamed into it when an in-depth interview in a national newspaper exposes their lack of action.
Isn’t it hard to believe how this bright mentor to so many young people – a former winner of the Rose of Tralee, a television presenter, a science expert – was frightened to be alone on campus? Former UCD Professor Hans-Benjamin Braun’s invasion of her personal rights was so sustained that she was almost at the point of abandoning her academic career.
What chance does that give to women who work on zero-hour contracts. Women, or girls, who have just escaped years of incarceration in Direct Provision Centres. Women, or girls, who have been institutionalised because of mental or physical health disabilities. Women, in all sorts of professions, who want to follow their chosen fields of expertise.   
Shouldn’t a university campus be the last bastion of bullying? Add in a subtle and insidious cocktail of sexual harassment and it beggars belief.
The Director of Mayo Rape Crisis Centre, Loretta McDonagh, told The Mayo News in last week’s edition that sexual harassment was systemic in all sorts of companies, big and  small, and, alarmingly, that it still endemic in our communities. She argued that there needed to be ‘a cultural shift’ in attitudes that would be best effected through educational resources (ironically), since Aoibhinn’s case exposes ‘how subtle, pervasive and persistent sexual harassment can be’.
Significantly, Ms McDonagh said: “I think there is a culture still in our society that makes women afraid to come forward, and to even question and blame themselves. They are often still afraid they may have caused the behaviour in some way.”
Noting how powerless a woman with Dr Ní Shúilleabháin’s position and profile could become in the face of such insidious behaviour, she highlighted the vulnerability of women who worked in lower-paid and less secure positions.
These latest shocking revelations beggars belief for those of us who remember the Women’s Movement of the 1970s and the many progressive legislative changes that were brought about through their activism. But, of course, this wasn’t the first feminist wave of the 20th century in Irish society.
It is important to remember that many of the freedoms achieved by such feminists as Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington, Dr Kathleen Lynn and Helena Molony, to name but a few, were rolled back by the socially conservative governments of the 1930s, led by Éamon de Valera.
Which leads one to argue that the battle for equal rights is fundamentally an ongoing one. While it is one that is supported by fair legislative foundations, the Ní Shúilleabháin case compellingly shows this struggle for equality is much more nuanced and subtle than the ambit of a legal or statutory framework.
UCD has now promised ‘a zero tolerance’ policy and proposes a new method of disclosure for staff and students who are the subjects of sexual harassment. That is all a little too late for Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin.