Saturday, November 21, 2009

The minefield of political correctness

My Irish Times That's Men Column published 27th October 2009:

THAT'S MEN: I've been taken to task over my comments about gender issues in last week's column, writes PADRAIG O'MORAIN 

LAST WEEK'S column has brought accusations that I insulted nuns and wrote "balderdash" about entry to medical schools.

I began by saying that after I left High Infants I never again saw a female teacher and I went on to suggest that now it is males who seem to be vanishing from the system.

I noted that all my teachers in Junior and High Infants were nuns and, I said, "they didn't really count as females. They were a higher and more scary order of being."

"What kind of language is that for a counsellor, who is dealing with both genders, on all levels of society, to use?" asks reader Meabh Ní Uallacháin.

"I don't care just what point you were trying to make, it is a total insult to the many good, gentle and caring women religious, who down through the years have made the Irish educational system what is, and the hospital system also and it's only when they are no longer visible in both, that their true worth as women will be appreciated . . . and they were 100 per cent women, with all the strengths, weaknesses, gifts and struggles that all women have . . . why demean them with that insult?"

Nuns did many great things in education, health and social services, but I would maintain that to schoolchildren at the time they were not ordinary women like our mothers or aunts but had a special and daunting status of their own. And I don't think I'm insulting anybody by saying that.

Michael Kane, professor emeritus of physiology at NUI Galway, suggests that the pressures of writing a weekly column account for "a piece of balderdash" in last week's effort.

In it, I mentioned that the proportion of women in the medical profession is increasing all the time. I then added, in brackets (and this was my downfall), "though the lads have now introduced a personality test for entry to medical school which they blatantly laud as boosting the proportion of men in the profession – how did they get away with that?"

Prof Kane points out that the HPat test is not a personality test but is supposed to evaluate one's ability to use knowledge rather than just learn things off by rote without understanding.

I should have known that, he says. Actually I did know it but lazy writing let me down. My substantive point remains, though. The medical establishment expressed great satisfaction this year that the test boosted the number of males entering medical school.

If the owner of a corner shop introduced a test to boost the proportion of males behind the counter, how long do you think it would be before he or she was up before some authority or other and fined for discrimination? Not long at all, I believe.

Prof Kane defends this aspect of the test. "It seems true that to some extent, perhaps to a major extent, one object in picking such a test was to give a more even balance of student genders entering medicine," he writes.

"If you are genuinely PC, then you should feel that is laudable. If you are pseudo PC, then you might feel the opposite."

If one believes that men and women are equal in intellectual ability, then selecting on the basis of the Leaving Cert alone, with females making up about 70 per of entrants to medicine, "was actively discriminating against male applicants", he adds.

Finally, Seathrún Mac Éin reminds me that in his book, Speed Write in Exams , Joseph F Foyle MA drew attention to the fact that women often have more nimble fingers than men do. Thus they can write far faster, which is an enormous advantage in nearly all written exams. . . Males in a hurry frequently tend to press so hard on the pen that they plough furrows in the paper, which can be felt by running a finger over the underside of the sheet! This actually slows them down. Females, on the other hand, tend to use a light touch – barely skimming the paper."

Well, my poor fingers have been soundly rapped already – so no speed writing for me.

Padraig O'Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, That's Men, the Best of the That's Men Column from The Irish Times , is published by Veritas

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