There is a noticeable gap in the percentage of women that make up the McMaster Student Representative Assembly.
Only 34.3 percent of the SRA is female and none of the executives on the Board of Directors are women.
These results put McMaster eighth amongst nine major research universities in Ontario compared in terms of representation of men and women on student governing bodies.
In the last SRA election, almost all the female students who ran won their seats, so the absence seems to be from a lack of female students putting their names forward rather than students being unwilling to elect women.
The gender gap has led some to question whether targeted strategies to create a more diverse student government should be considered.
A male dominated history
Although McMaster consistently ranks among Ontario’s best universities, McMaster is the second worst when it comes to gender equity in student government.
Of the 35 students and elected executives on the SRA, only 12 are women. Furthermore, of the six SRA standing committees elected by the SRA, only one has a female commissioner.
The Student Representative Assembly is the MSU’s legislative body and it plays an integral role in creating MSU policy and running services on campus. The MSU has a budget of over $13 million dollars.
The lack of female representatives is most apparent in the highest-ranking positions of student government. There are currently no women amongst the President and Vice Presidents.
This trend has been fairly consistent throughout McMaster’s history. The MSU President has always been male, with only four exceptions. One recent exception, Siobhan Stewart served as president from 2011-2012.
“It’s important to have the voices of many not just women, but different communities and different perspectives” said Stewart. “It’s not just an issue within the MSU it’s an issue within society.”
The Vice Presidents have also been predominantly male.
Of the 33 Vice-Presidents over the past 11 years, only ten have been women. Moreover, women have been significantly underrepresented in the VP-finance position (no women elected in 11 year) and VP-administration (only two women in eleven years).
Although the gender imbalance might have been a product of a predominantly male student body in the past, this is no longer a possible explanation, because female students now outnumber men in most faculties, and overall at an undergraduate level at McMaster.
A problem stemming from socialization
The majority of the women elected as vice-presidents have served under the education portfolio. However, even in this sub-field women have been underrepresented compared to men.
This trend is evidence of the way socialization affects people’s choices.
“You may choose an area where you think there will be less dissonance between who you are and what people think of that role, it may be that people think that people may be more likely to see me as suitable candidate for the education portfolio rather than the finance portfolio, so it may be that ‘rational’ choices about what’s the place where your profile will have less disassociation with the position you’re aiming for,” said Professor Caroline Andrew, the director of the Institute on Governance at the University of Ottawa, and an expert on women and inclusivity in local governance.
The gender gap at universities might not only be a product of social norms; it may also contribute to the lack of women in leadership positions in society more broadly.
High ranking governance positions can lead to other important opportunities. For instance, last year’s MSU president David Campbell now studies at Harvard’s school of government.
“Deciding to run even at a municipal level, or provincial or federal, takes an act of deciding that you would be better than other people at doing this,” said Andrew.
“And I think that’s still, in terms of socialization for a lot of women, that’s a hard leap to make.”
In total, 80 percent of the female candidates who ran for SRA in the last election received seats.
This seems to indicate the lack of female representatives is not due to students being unwilling to vote for female students, but rather, a lack of women being willing to put their name on the ballot due to systemic barriers.
One way to address these systemic barriers is by creating an ad-hoc group of SRA members. And yet, currently the SRA doesn’t have any such group.
“The SRA is elected by the students, for the students. By virtue of the election process, the SRA is representative of the student body. The creation of ad-hoc groups is completely governed by the will of the assembly,” said Mike Cheung, Speaker of the SRA.
Should underrepresented groups be specifically targeted?
Zaynab Al-waadh and Lindsay Robinson are McMaster student researchers involved in the recently published Women and Diversity EXCLerator Report.
They see McMaster’s underrepresentation of female student leaders in the most visible positions as symptomatic of a lack of women leaders in other sectors in Hamilton.
“When you constantly see the same kind of person, the same kind of people holding the top positions in clubs or student groups… you have the assumption that’s the kind of person that is a leader,” said Al-waadh, who is in her fourth year of her Bachelor of Social Work.
They say strategies to specifically engage women should be considered at McMaster.
“Gender quotas can be a good idea if representation is really low,” said Robinson, a fourth year Political Science and Labour Studies student. But she says these tools should be implemented cautiously.
“At the same time I don’t think we should have token females only representing female interest.”
Without a culture of inclusivity, gender quotas can be divisive.
“The SRA has discussed having seats for marginalized groups… and we always end up shooting [those ideas] down,” said Naomi Pullen, a former SRA member and the current Deputy Returning Officer of MSU Elections.
Various ways to increase diversity
The elections department is interested in increased promotional strategies.
“We are working with the advocacy street team and looking at how we advertise our elections,” said Pullen. “We are really just starting to talk about it right now.”
She notes that women are fully represented among part-time managers, which are non-elected positions.
“It’s not the women aren’t interested in being part of student leadership positions, but there seems to be something about the election process that’s prohibitive,” she said.
Andrew said that peer-to-peer encouragement might be the best way to engage women.
“I think you could have some of the people who are part of the student representatives and some of the women who are on them to maybe directly try to seek out likely candidates, and to say ‘I think you’d be good at this, have you ever thought about it?’”
This strategy could be particularly effective for engaging diverse students from other underrepresented perspectives.
“I think the MSU should take a more proactive stance in perhaps holding information sessions, or reaching out to different groups… because no one really knows how to be on the SRA. It’s very ambiguous—you have to be really involved in the student union to know,” said Al-waadh.
“They can tell people, ‘by the way it’s important that if you’re a woman, or you’re this, or you’re that, we want you.’”
Given that this imbalance is not unique to McMaster, the Ontario University Student Alliance might be equally interested in systemic solutions.
“OUSA has to report to the SRA every so often, and I haven’t heard of them doing anything like this,” said Pullen. “Even OUSA leadership is male heavy.”
It is up to the current student leaders to take initiative not only at McMaster, but at all universities in Ontario to ensure the next generation of student government accurately reflects the student body.