The sidelining of women in the GAA power structure an own goal in misogyny

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An interesting article published on the GAA website this week examines how the association, the bedrock of Irish society with its 700,000 members, is “an entity founded by men and molded in a patriarchal system”.

Written by GAA Community and Health Manager Colin Regan, it surprises on many levels.

First, it was included in the GAA club newsletter for February, but also tagged on the website as worth reading. It’s comforting to think that a man like him works within the GAA for more equality.

We need more like him. In addition to her article, this column will look specifically at the gender breakdown of the GAA’s 29 national committees – where the real power lies.

Mr Regan explains that he wrote the article following the murder of Kilcormac Killoughey camogie player Ashling Murphy.

The GAA is a microcosm of Irish state and society…that means it is an entity founded by men and molded in a patriarchal system.

The association, he added, has recognized this and is in the process of addressing the imbalances, biases and behaviors that manifest in such a system.

“These can be experienced by our female members as a lack of representation or perspective at leadership levels, sexism, stereotyping, condescension and a lack of respect.”

Members of Kilcormac Killoughey, Ashling Murphy’s GAA club, at the funeral of 23 at St. Brigid’s Church, Mountbolus, Co Offaly. Photo: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

In the aftermath of Ashling’s fatal attack, he posed a key question, given GAA’s central role and place in every parish: what could the association do to help move Irish society towards a more greater inclusion and equality?

“As men, we need to examine ourselves carefully, examine our attitudes, our biases and our behaviors. We also need to look inward as an association.

We must welcome constructive criticism and we must see this decisive moment as an opportunity. Only then can we begin to co-design some of the solutions.

There are men in the GAA who recognize that a truly healthy club and association is one where masculine and feminine qualities complement each other and become more than the sum of their parts.

“We need to engage these men and urge them to be agents of positive change in all aspects of their lives,” Regan writes. “Including when they are on a WhatsApp group and inappropriate or degrading content or comments are made about women. Or when they’re in a pub or a club and a drunk friend or teammate is groping a girl. Or when they see a woman getting noticed or needing an ally.

Right on target, he points out that some people may wonder how this relates to Ashling’s death, but stresses that gender-based violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum: “It’s part of a continuum. It often starts with a lack of respect, a lack of empathy… We have to put our women’s games on an equal footing.

Well done Colin.

But before we get too carried away, let’s take a look at these facts and figures. According to information provided by the GAA, there are 29 national committees. A spokesperson pointed out that not all are appointed by the GAA chair – some are mandated.

Analyzing membership, there are 304 committee seats; 232 of them are occupied by men and 72 by women, so more than three quarters are occupied by men.

The numbers are even more striking for committee chairs, who are 88% predominantly male.

Starting with the powerful management committee – in effect the GAA board of directors – it has 16 men and four women. One of these women is a member of the Ladies Gaelic Football Association and the other of the Camogie Association. We don’t know if they have the right to vote. A third woman is secretary of the committee. A fourth is a postgraduate.

Another powerful commission, the central competition control commission, has only one woman out of 10, as does the central commission for hearings.

Another heavy hitter, the central appeals committee, has two out of 10. There are no women on the referee nominating committee, as there is on the development competition review committee. Quite remarkably, given the gender balance in the teaching profession, there is not a single woman on the board of post-primary schools in all of Ireland.

The committee that dictates rule changes has two out of eight women. The financial management committee has two women out of 12, and in this case, one of them is the secretary of the committee.

Sport Ireland stresses that the government’s target for state boards is at least 40% of each gender by the end of 2023. Its latest overview of female representations means we can confidently say At this point the GAA will fail miserably in achieving this goal. Its current figure is 20%. Perhaps GAA President Larry McCarthy will take comfort in the fact that the FAI is only at 17% and the IRFU at 13%.

All of this is symbolic at best. Unsurprisingly, only two GAA committees have more women than men. The one who oversees the organization of Scór na nÓg, with six women and five men, and the health and well-being committee with seven women and three men. There is an equal number of men and women on the national child protection committee. These committees clearly do really important work, but lack the power of those mentioned earlier.

Tracey Kennedy, Past Chair, Cork GAA.  Photo: Cathal Noonan
Tracey Kennedy, Past Chair, Cork GAA. Photo: Cathal Noonan

Given how unusual it was, we all tend to remember the first woman to hold the office of President of Cork County Council, Tracey Kennedy. In December 2020, as she left office, she said that the “GAA, as an association, leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to gender balance”.

Currently, all 32 county council presidents are men. Imagine the impact if all of the women who fill the very demanding roles of club secretary and treasurer would tear down tools to protest the GAA’s treatment of women.

Ms. Kennedy spoke about the fact that the men’s and women’s games should be managed by a single national body. I totally agree. The existence of the LGFA and the Camogie association leaves too much leeway for the men of the GAA on their obligations.

It is extraordinary, for example, to think that a few years ago the Tyrone women’s football team had to pay £13,000 for training and games to the Tyrone County Board for a facility built for the teams of Tyrone GAA.

Asked about its policy on gender balance in all these committees, the GAA said that the LGFA and the Camogie Association had created a joint diversity and inclusion task force, with equal representation. Its mandate is to develop a diversity and inclusion framework for Gaelic games associations. The first pillar on positive involvement of the LGBT+ community has been drafted and is under discussion. Four other pillars, including one on “promoting the equal participation of women and men in our global structures”, are under development.

The GAA is to be commended for publishing this article. The next step is to publicly recognize that the role of women remains marginal in decision-making within the association.

They don’t like to hear it, but the men who govern here need to realize that maintaining such structures, continuing to sideline women and blatantly suppressing power, adds to their own purpose of misogyny.

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