When former MSU President Mary Koziol read the list of candidates running this year, her first instinct was to e-mail Suzan Fraser, who was president in 1988.
“Seven people running, not a single woman” was the gist of the message.
The lopsided ratio this year has raised eyebrows, but it’s not extremely unusual at this university. Historically, more men than women have run in MSU elections, and there have been other years when no women ran—1994, for example, saw 12 candidates vying for the position, all of whom were men.
When Koziol won in 2010, she was the first in 22 years to break a streak of male presidents – something she still feels is an important accomplishment.
“I thought, we need to break the streak but we also need different models of leaders out there. People need to see that you don’t have to fit a certain mold – and it’s not just about being male. A lot of people think leaders must be very outgoing, aggressive, assertive, charismatic – none of which I particularly identify with,” she said.
When she was involved in student politics, Koziol was often described as being passive.
“I think it was very assumption-based. At the SRA table, for example, I didn’t speak a lot, but that’s not because I didn’t have opinions. That’s not the same as being passive. I’m a very passionate person – I’m very assertive when it’s called for.”
Koziol is among only four women presidents elected in the history of the MSU. The three others are Ann Blackwood (1979), Suzan Fraser (1988) and current president Siobhan Stewart.
Like Koziol, Stewart has noticed the buzz around the skewed ratio this year.
“I’ve had people bring it up to me—both men and women,” she said.
The issue was also raised at the debate held in the Student Centre on Tuesday.
“People are excited when you represent them. If the electorate is diverse then you would want to see candidates being diverse,” Stewart said.
But the shortage of women running doesn’t mean there’s a lack of interest among potential female candidates.
“I know women who have considered running and in the end chose to back a male friend,” said Stewart. “Anybody can technically apply, but there are other barriers.”
It’s hard to pinpoint why more female students at McMaster don’t go out and get signatures for nomination.
Various factors could be at play in the choices women make, or don’t, about running: how women are socialized to deal with public scrutiny and view positions in political office is one of them.
“The student body has demonstrated that people are willing to vote for a strong female candidate – I don’t think there’s discrimination there necessarily,” said Koziol.
“I think the larger problem is the way we socialize men and women that leads to more men running. When women run, they have a really good chance of being elected – but they don’t [run].”
Koziol and Stewart were each the only woman running in their respective elections, which were a year apart.
“I was told repeatedly not to put women’s issues at the forefront of my platform,” said Koziol “I think that’s an interesting dynamic — that it’s okay to be female and run for an election, but you have to be careful about how proud you are about being female.”
Both she and Stewart recognized that running or being known as “the girl” in an election can lead to tokenization, although being the lone woman didn’t deter them from winning.
Stewart said she knows why she gets recognition for being a black female president, but she wants it to “not be noteworthy.”
“I’m not sure I want to be ‘the female representative’ or ‘the black representative,’ said Stewart. “You should pick your candidates based on platform and values, not gender.”
Stewart and Koziol agreed on the notion that an MSU policy to increase female representation may not work in practice, the idea being that a woman could be criticized for winning a seat because she was a woman and not because she was deserving of the seat.
“For me it doesn’t solve the bigger problems,” said Stewart.
The underrepresentation of women extends beyond the MSU to all levels of government. In Canada, women occupy roughly 22 per cent of seats in the House of Commons. The percentage is marginally higher (about 23 per cent) on municipal councils and in provincial legislature.
“I don’t think the discussion [of underrepresented women in student politics] would occur naturally within the student body. The broader society would need to change first,” noted Koziol. “I think the most important work the MSU can do is through forums.”
For women who’ve thought about or are considering running for MSU president, Koziol has some advice to offer.
“I would say, number one, seek out a mentor. You need a support system,” she said. “I’d like to see women really question why they’re not going for stuff like this. I think it’s a tricky thing to navigate: could you actually not do this, or do you just think you don’t fit the mold?”