Yesterday, the three candidates for the upcoming Provost election were confirmed. For the first time ever, all three candidates are women and Trinity will see its first female provost in its 429-year history.
My immediate response was to celebrate this incredible feat. The pandemic has made “living through history” a daily occurrence, but the significance of this news was not lost on me. However, upon seeing Trinity boast about it online, and the adulation College received from some, my second thought was: “Why has it taken this long?”
It has been 10 years since the last provost was elected and in that time the world has made considerable progress with regards to women’s issues. While it is surprising that we have not seen a woman win the race yet, there have been female candidates. I commend the candidates for breaking through the “glass ceiling”, I really do. But, to me, the most significant thing about the 2021 Provost election is not just that there are women running, it’s that there are only women running.
While it is surprising that we have not seen a woman win the race yet, there have been female candidates
The candidates flocked to Twitter to publicly acknowledge the historic achievement they are part of. But being part of this achievement doesn’t automatically make any of the candidates uber-progressive. Upon reading the manifestos of the three confirmed candidates, I find vague references to “equality” and “fairness”, but the bulk of their promises focus on the hot-button issues such as administration and promotion structures, and who can blame them? These are the issues the electorate cares about, as a survey by this newspaper has revealed.
I’m sure most of the electorate welcome the idea of a female provost, but if they do not take an interest in, and actively fight for, women’s issues in College, then the delight they share on social media is little more than performative. I fear that some people see this as a box to tick in the history and culture of Trinity but lack the passion on an individual level to advocate for the cause. It is vital that we do not see this as the end-point in the journey to gender equality in Trinity and, more widely, in academia.
It should be acknowledged, however, that the sociological implications of female representation at the very top of the College structure could be even greater than we believe. The fact that, for the next decade, all Trinity students will refer to their Provost as she/her, could increase leadership in staff and students who identify as women and make them feel listened to by decision-makers. Overall, this step could further normalise the idea of women in important roles. The well-known sentiment “you can’t be what you can’t see” comes to mind.
It is vital that we do not see this as the end-point in the journey to gender equality in Trinity and, more widely, in academia.
However, we must be wary of the “girl boss” mentality that has perpetuated an attitude of unconditional support and forgiveness towards any woman who manages to make it into a top job. Our feminism must be intersectional. A victory for white, privileged, middle-class women is not necessarily a victory for all women. We should not use our next provost as a representation of all women’s interests in College, nor should we expect them to be.
It is possible to both acknowledge a major step in gender equality while still holding women in power to account. Candidates, and eventually the new provost, should be challenged and questioned. Will anything really change? Will their prospective policies actively level the playing field for women in academia? Will they make an effort to raise the voices of women less privileged than themselves? These are the things candidates should be measured on, rather than gender alone.
I expect that Trinity will milk the all-female election for all its worth, and run with this token (an important one, but nonetheless, a token) to make it seem to outsiders that this goes much deeper than that. My hope is that this is the first step in raising the voices of women and minorities in Trinity, a university which prides itself on its diversity. We have all seen the damage that can be done to even the most established brands when campaigns are organised and decisions are made without the input of a diverse range of voices, and listening to these voices will be especially important for Trinity if the next provost values commercialisation as much as the current one does.
A victory for white, privileged, middle-class women is not necessarily a victory for all women
Linda Doyle’s campaign slogan asks the electorate to “Imagine Trinity in 2031”. Well, if we’re talking about advances in gender equality, Trinity might be relatively unchanged. It is up to the new provost and Trinity’s decision makers to make sure that things do change, so that next time there is an all-female race, we’re not so surprised. It’s not just about having a woman in power, it is about having the right one.