In 2014, the Silhouette gathered the facts for female representation in student politics. The statistics were grim. McMaster ranked eighth out of nine major research universities in Ontario for equal gender representation on student government, a gap which was most apparent in the highest-ranking positions for president and vice-president. This trend is particularly concerning given that more women than men are enrolled in undergraduate studies at McMaster. The issue lead to the creation of groups such as MSU Wants You, a working group aimed at tackling the issue of equal representation. Two years later, it is unclear whether anything has changed.
SUPPLY AND DEMAND
Research on female representation in politics has taken the form of what Karen Bird, professor of political science at McMaster, calls an issue of supply and demand. Voters are not biased against women. Rather, it is an issue of supply, where women are not putting their names forward as candidates. When the electoral system involved parties, the responsibility falls on the shoulder of the parties to tap women on the shoulder and recruit them to run.
Blake Oliver, vice-president (Education) of the MSU, recalled her hesitation to run when she first got involved in the McMaster Students Union as a member of the Student Representative Assembly for Health Sciences.
“I remember looking through the past Health Sci representatives, [and despite the fact that our] faculty is two thirds female, I couldn’t find a single example of a time where both representatives had been women. It has almost exclusively been both men or half.”
“I had those women who were in their own leadership positions who were reaching out and saying to me ‘you would be good for this position.’ I think that has really contributed to me coming into this position now,” said Oliver.
MSU WANTS YOU
MSU Wants You was born out of the desire to have equal opportunity for minorities within the MSU. The group was a working group last year but as of the start of this year has developed into a full committee. The sense is that the group diverted a bit away from their original plan and has been stagnant for a little while, according to Oliver, but changes are in the process of being made.
Feedback has contributed to some of these changes. People asked for an event that was more accessible, leading to the creation of Elections 101, an info session leading up to elections. A formal session appeals to people who may not be comfortable to go to TwelvEighty and speak to SRA members.
While Oliver and Bird both implied that shoulder tapping has anecdotally helped encourage women run for positions they would have otherwise shied away from, it is seen as a double-edged sword by the MSU Wants You.
“From what I have heard from the past, the shoulder tapping is something we have discouraged, actually, because the people who have closer relationships and know people in these jobs will shoulder tap people they know and it becomes a perpetuation of the canonical MSU bubble,” said Helen Zeng, chair of MSU Wants You. Posts on Facebook advertising MSU positions are often littered with comments from MSU members tagging others in the comments, urging them to apply.
“That is something that I remember the group last year was specifically against because we don’t want to make it seem like these are the only people that would be good for the job,” said Zeng.
This leaves us with a conundrum that is all the more emphasized by a non-partisan system. Bird acknowledges that at the level of student government, you don’t have parties and it is up to you whether you are going to go forward as a candidate.
The trend is even more surprising for local politics and student government. At the highest levels of power, where travel expectations might deter women who do not want to leave their community, the reluctance to run is less surprising.
“It is so puzzling that it is the case for local politics and for young women. Women are the majority in most disciplines now, at least across the university. Women tend to do better in their GPA. They have all the skills and all the ability but there is still something that is keeping women from stepping forward,” said Bird.
CLEAR CUT NOT CUT THROAT
Bird hypothesizes that the nature of the political system might be a culprit for this reluctance.
“Maybe women don’t like the fighting and the power politics or the power plays and just don’t find that kind of working environment healthy or personally rewarding, so there might be ways of shifting the environment or culture of politics to make it more inviting for women.”
Listing student government positions are valuable experiences that can help students get employed after leaving university, so it is not likely that women do not find value in the experience. Instead, Bird thinks that women may be seeing negatives that men are less likely to consider. “[This] perhaps has to do with the culture of politics, [such as] the need to take no compromise positions,” said Bird.
Here Bird sees the opportunity for intervention in the form of increased transparency about what it takes to hold a position in student government.
“If we tell candidates that compromise is actually essential and it is not about the need to take hard and fast positions… I think women would see that. Are elements of culture itself toxic, or is [there a] perception of toxicity? If we knew a bit more about the position we would see it [as less] hostile.”
Misperceptions around what it takes to do the job may also discourage women from applying if they feel they are not fit. Being clear in disseminating information about the skills that student government positions require to the student body may increase female turnout, because women will likely realize they have those skills.
ELECTING FOR NON-ELECTIONS
When looking at the distribution of women in appointed part-time manager positions in comparison to elected positions on the SRA and as MSU President, women are more likely to be in the appointed positions; women outnumber men in Part Time Manager positions but on average, not in SRA positions and certainly not for MSU president positions. In the conversation leading up to the referendum on whether MSU VP positions should become elected at large, the no side expressed concern over the fact that we may see less women running for these positions once they become at-large elections.
Bird has seen a similair phenomenon around the world, where women running in elections tend to dislike feeling responsible for mobilizing the vote singlehandedly, preferring instead to run as a part of a group. “It causes this pause. We tend to think election that is democracy, but we know across countries with different kinds of electoral systems that women are significantly far more likely to have higher seat share when they are proportional representation systems than single member districts,” she said. “Women are happy to be candidates when they are part of a list and when it is a collective effort to go out and mobilize the vote. That, along with data that women are more likely to be in appointed positions, suggests that you will see fewer women if you have exclusively elected positions.”
The University of Western Ontario had a near equal split between female and male representation in student politics when the Silhouette covered the topic two years ago. At Western, presidential and vice-presidential candidates run as a part of a team. Perhaps a similar system would increase female representation in the highest-ranking positions at McMaster.
“Critics will say that women have to learn to singlehandedly mobilize the vote, that is a skill you need to be in this position. [However] that is the skill you need to run for election but may have very little to do with the skills you need to work in that office,” Bird challenges critics to reconsider. “Some of them certainly, like the ability to communicate well, but the ability to work as a team might be better reflected and better assessed through a non-elected position.”
Oliver is a strong supporter of keeping VP elections within the SRA. “I think it could create more barriers for women to run. It is relatively equal for women who have held up positions but there have only been four women MSU presidents ever. I think part of that has to do with running at large. I certainly wouldn’t have run in an at-large election after running in the Health Sciences election, it was not something I wanted to do again.”
ON THE OUTSIDE
One of the goals of MSU Wants You is to have workshops about the barriers that minority groups may face when aspiring to join the MSU. One more surprising barrier is the disparity between the kinds of questions and concerns that are raised against females running in elections processes that you just don’t see with males.
Shaarujaa Nadarajah, vice-president (Administration) of the MSU, comments on this disparity.
“Even within the SRA, certain questions that were asked to women running [for VP positions] were ‘you tend to have a mannerism that is loud and outspoken, is that something that you think is fitting for a vice presidential role?’ If you compare that to a male counterpart, none of the males that ran for a VP position were asked any questions that was related to their personality or that was catered to a certain mannerism.”
These comments are present beyond the election process. Once women are elected and take up their positions, they still face barriers due to their gender.
Oliver is always surprised by comments that have nothing to do with her demeanour rather than her competency at the job. “I have definitely gotten ‘you need to smile more at work’, and that is the stuff that takes me by surprise that I don’t see happening with other men at work.”
In a sense, the lack of women in high-ranking positions within the MSU creates a downstream effect that propagates the gender imbalance. Having female role models in these positions allows women to know that they have equal opportunity for occupying those roles themselves. While females tend to do well when they actually run, the lack of visible representation sends the message that the kind of person that gets those positions is not usually female.
This problem is likely accentuated by the fact that the majority of people come to any single university for only four to five years. This means that if there are no female MSU presidents or vice presidents within those years, women are go through university with the impression that women just don’t occupy those positions, and are consequently less likely to run themselves.
SATISFACTION NOT (YET) GUARANTEED
These barriers further highlight the importance of groups such as MSU Wants You. Zeng says that the majority of the events this year have been focused on popping the bubble.
“We try to create sessions where people can come, ask questions, because the process can be intimidating. Having us and SRA members be accessible is very important… [while also] creating more formalized session for learning about the elections process for people who may feel more intimidated by the MSU circles,” said Zeng.
The group has also taken a look at data collection in the past. “They did focus groups to collect information on how they got involved, what barriers did you see. They also went to PTMs and took descriptions and outlines of jobs from PTMs and turned it into a document so that it is more accessible.”
While they have yet to meet since becoming a committee, Zeng says the group is able to take on whatever form the committee wants.
Oliver thinks that the group is instrumental in helping address some of the barriers that women face in running for governance. She would love to see some critical discourse surrounding the elections process and certain aspects that may create barriers for women. “For example, we don’t see any more people putting up posters on the side of the building that are several feet large. That was something that elections decided it is not something we have to do any more. I would love to talk about why do we have to have a photograph of the person on the poster, why can’t we have a poster that has branding on it, instead of selling someone’s face to the entire student body.”
It is difficult to tell if there has been improvement over the last two years. “In terms of presidential candidates, we haven’t seen much improvement. Last year only one woman ran, the year before none. However, we have seen a more gender-balanced SRA, the year I was elected it was 50/50… It is hard to say without years of tracking it, for example it is back to being more male dominated. It is definitely hard to say. I will say that two of the four women presidents have been in the last six years, so I think that is a positive sign that at least some of these barriers have been broken down,” said Oliver.
Oliver hopes to see some more changes coming from groups like MSU Wants You. “I would like to see groups like MSU Wants You to take on not only a role in education but also in policy, looking at what are the rules and how do they create barriers for women to run.”
Ultimately, and perhaps unfortunately, a large part of the responsibility falls down on groups rallying for equal representation to take a look at some of the systemic problems that lead to barriers for women, and to address them. For women who are already in leadership positions, speaking about their experience may mobilize other women consider running. While a weight of responsibility does fall on groups such as these, it is important for individuals to think critically about changes they want to see on the McMaster campus. While the last two years have seen hints of improvement, it is not time to sit back and be satisfied. We are far from that moment.