How I learned that preserving the male status quo was leaders’ real task

As a woman concerned by gender inequality, I could be tolerated coming up to the elbows of the men in power, but not to their shoulders, says Pat O’Connor

February 14, 2024
Group of men sitting at a table in a business meeting to illustrate How I learned that keeping men at the top was leaders’ real task
Source: Comstock/Getty images

Like many women of my generation, I was well into midlife before I called out gender inequality.

At 19, with a first-class degree, I was bewildered when the director of Ireland’s Economic and Social Research Institute dismissed my ambition to do a master’s with the remark: “You will marry.” In my thirties, I was puzzled when a male footballer with no PhD or publications was favoured over me (I had both) in what was then Waterford Institute of Technology. But in my forties, as course director of women’s studies at the University of Limerick, I could not ignore the explicit devaluation, stereotyping and misogyny towards that discipline and my embodiment of it. I began to identify a pattern and to publicly name gender inequality.

That didn’t stop me, at 50, from being the first woman to become a faculty dean at Limerick, even though the president had expressed concern during the interview that I was a “single issue” candidate, “too concerned” with gender inequality. I convinced him that the processes underlying such inequality were similar to those perpetuating sectarianism in Northern Ireland, to which he was strongly opposed.

But I didn’t rise any higher – and it wasn’t for want of trying. During my second term as dean, the position of vice-president academic and registrar came up, and my colleagues encouraged me to go for it. I was not successful but, undeterred, I applied for the university presidency when the incumbent resigned unexpectedly on health grounds.

No woman had ever been president of a public university in Ireland, but I had found to my surprise that I enjoyed mobilising support for organisational change to better serve the students and the staff – and I was good at it. Moreover, I had always been irritated by assertions that women do not apply for senior positions because they do not want to get and use power and are unwilling to compete and risk failure. Some women, like some men, do want to do this. But many read the signs and recognise that they are not the “favoured one”, so do not apply. Not me.

I made my application public, explaining that I wanted to see off the idea that women are not interested in such positions. I thus breached an unstated code of modesty for women and was not shortlisted. Later, it emerged that the interview board had been entirely male, to the considerable chagrin of the sole (external) shortlisted female candidate, who was also unsuccessful.

With the further encouragement of colleagues, I then reapplied for the position of vice-president academic. This time I got to interview – but again, I was unsuccessful. Frustrated, I asked for an appointment with the president to get some feedback.

We had worked together for three years when he had been vice-president and, at a personal level, we got on well. We shared a zany sense of humour and I embodied his more radical aspects. Both of us could be direct, with little time for small talk. So I asked him straight away for the scores the appointment board gave me.

“I can give you your scores,” he said, “but they will tell you nothing.”

Between fingers stained dark brown from years of smoking, he lifted a piece of paper from the low table in front of him and passed it to me.

He wasn’t wrong. I had received 85 per cent for leadership and for interpersonal and communication skills and 80 per cent for academic credibility. However, I had got only 66 per cent for understanding the system and 65 per cent for judgement and decision-making. How could I be a good leader if I didn’t understand the system and was a poor decision-maker?

“It came down to a choice between you and Paul,” the president explained. Paul was one of the five heads of department who reported to me. “I had to choose between politics and principles, and I chose politics.”

We both knew what he was referring to: my perceived unwillingness to support “the boys’ club” regardless of the rights/wrongs of a particular situation. There was nothing more to be said. The irregularities that had always been denied were confirmed. He was just being honest. Formal criteria were window dressing. Willingness to maintain the male status quo was the real criterion.

I shook his extended hand and closed the door quietly. I had to face it. As a woman concerned with gender inequality, I could be tolerated coming up to the elbows of the men in power, but not to their shoulders. I was defeated, but vindicated.

The face of discrimination is much less overt now, and Ireland is currently celebrated for its large number of female presidents. But the victories may be temporary. The recent hounding out of office of Claudine Gay at Harvard University and Elizabeth Magill at the University of Pennsylvania suggests that future challenges may revolve more around retention of women leaders, rather than access to these positions. The face of gender inequality may change, but it is still there.

Pat O’Connor is professor emeritus of sociology and social policy at the University of Limerick and a visiting full professor at the Geary Institute, University College Dublin. This is an edited extract from her book A ‘proper’ woman? One woman’s story of success and failure in academia. Readers can use code TTH30 until 29 February for a 30 per cent discount at

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Reader's comments (1)

Did it ever occur that the reason that Professors Gay & Magill found their positions untenable was due to their OPINIONS being at odds to those of a bunch of politicians, and not to do with the fact that they happen to be female?