A Response To Tab Article: ‘Shifting The Balance of Power’

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The Soton Tab recently published an article entitled ‘Shifting The Balance of Power’ in which the writer wrote ‘vehemently’ (his word, not mine) about his perception of a recent ideas session at Union Council. This session was was an attempt to address the issue of gender imbalance within the highest positions of SUSU. It was not about ‘positive discrimination’ as Simon Boyce has said. This article is a response to his tirade on what he saw as a ‘policy debate’ about ‘positive discrimination’ and the damaging effects it could have on our Union.

Firstly, I’d like to thank Simon Boyce for raising the profile of Union Council and for voicing his opinions on the gender imbalance within SUSU. However, I don’t think that you were in the same ideas session I was.

Union Council April, 15 photo courtesy of David Gilani
Union Council April, 15 photo courtesy of David Gilani

As a female Student Leader and Editor of the Wessex Scene, gender equality within SUSU is something very close to my heart. It is because SUSU has progressed to this point that I am in my position.

The ideas session in question was held at Union Council on April, 15 and led by Shane Murphy. Ideas sessions are informal and are a chance to introduce new ideas and discuss them. Simon Boyce’s article could then be seen as somewhat premature seeing as no motion has been created or formal action taken as yet. This session highlighted that there is a gender imbalance within SUSU’s highest positions and then asked ‘is this a problem, and if it is how should we tackle it?’

‘Positive discrimination’ was not mentioned by Shane in his introduction to the session and I do not believe that this debate was facilitated in order to push for ‘positive discrimination’. The fact that 80% of those councillors in attendance thought that gender imbalance is a problem suggests that the discussion we had, was an important one.

There IS a gender imbalance within SUSU as shown in the full-time Sabbatical teams, last year made up of all men bar Frankie and this year with two female Sabbs as opposed to five men. Is this a problem? Yes, I think it is, considering that our University has 54% female membership. How can Sabbaticals be expected to make balanced decisions which reflect the student body if the female population is under-represented?

Union Council, April 15, photo courtesy of David Gilani
Union Council, April 15, photo courtesy of David Gilani

Shane himself spoke of times in the Sabb office last year when Frankie would propose ideas or speak of the importance of something and the male Sabbs disregard this. I thought that this was a brave thing for him to say, I don’t think that this was a conscious act to repress Frankie’s ideas but actually that one person, with a different view, is less effective at standing their ground with five other Sabbs to convince, than say if there were three or four with similar ideas.

Let me clarify, I don’t think that the SUSU electorate discriminate based on gender and only vote for men, thus the problem lies in the fact that less women are running. At least in the elections for Sabbaticals, Trustees, Union Councillors and Student Leaders. This leads to an absence of female role models which can then lead to a vicious circle as described by VP Academic Affairs Sasha Watson, ‘on average, over the course of 5-10 years, we should see roughly a normal distribution of men and female Sabbs – but we don’t. It’s massively skewed to the men, and that engenders the feeling that some people cant go for it.’ A lack of strong female role models within the Sabb roles can mean that girls have less to aspire to and see less positive change made by women.

Therefore perhaps it is not a case for ‘positive discrimination’ but actually a change in SUSU culture which would encourage more women to run and take the higher roles? This is where I differ from Simon’s view as I believe that this ideas session invited councillors to reflect on SUSU as an organisation and think of ways to tackle gender imbalance, not by implementing ‘positive discrimination’ but by thinking of ways to empower SUSU members. We were encouraged to look at what other Unions have done to encourage their students to run, whether male or female. For example Solent University have an all female Sabb team and in many of the newer universities in Britain females are running for and leading their Unions. If we could attract more SUSU members to run regardless of gender then we could ensure that the best person got the job.

We talked about gender balancing, yes. But this was amongst other ideas such as: re-introducing a Women’s Officer, putting on more well-resourced workshops, placing the responsibility onto officers to speak to women and encourage them to run, targeting courses which have a significant gender imbalance and the imbalance of leadership skills between men and women. Marcus Burton, Union Councillor, made an interesting point which was that in men attributes of assertiveness, public speaking and indendent thought are encouraged from an early age and in women they aren’t and so we should give women these same skills.

Perhaps the glass ceiling is not a female problem, I think we all have our own glass ceilings the imaginary point at which we believe we will not progress further. Chloe Green’s Womens’ Workshop was an inspired idea because strong women from within our own university talked about the problems they have faced and gave us tips for being more assertive. The fact that this workshop was held solely for women created a female-only safe space which was comfortable and we could discuss anything. I think that SUSU should take these workshops and put on different ones for different student groups. We should use them to give those with the ideas and commitment, the belief in themselves to run in the elections. That way we could encourage students from every walk of SUSU life to see their own worth and amplify their voices.

Personally, I didn’t run for a Sabb role this year because I have my sights set on becoming a journalist. It is my experience in the Student Leader and Editor positions that has taught me about accountability and being strong and true to both myself and to my publication. My next step is not into the Sabb office but into Europe as my MA course is based in both Denmark and Germany. I have realised this year that with a bigger audience comes a greater responsibility and that as a journalist I should strive to provide as much information as possible thus people can make their own informed decisions.

Being a Student Leader has empowered me to this point and I hope that my experience will inspire other women to take up any and every position they want to. I fear that Simon Boyce, by labelling this discussion as ‘positive discrimination’ and giving a narrow view of the discussion which took place, is stifling this debate before it has had the chance to develop.

It cannot be a coincidence that we’ve only had four female presidents in 90 years, surely in this environment of educated young people we should expect better than that.

Make sure gender equality is not made redundant at next week’s AGM. Vote here.

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I come from South West London and am studying English at Southampton. I am interested in journalism and considering it as a career after my degree. I have interests in Sports and Music and have written for a sports magazine called Sportsister before. I am keen to get involved in as much as possible whilst at Uni and writing about my experiences could be a very rewarding thing. :)

Discussion32 Comments

  1. avatar

    Women pffft

    Sam Ling
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    Although I’m sure this is intended as an ironic/jokey comment it would be great if the comment space on this article could remain as a safe space to discuss what is in my mine a fairly mature and potentially complex topic.

    This sort of comment, although im sure not intentionally, undermines that

    Man
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    ‘safe space’ come back to real world Sam

  2. avatar

    Seeing as they are positions elected by the student body (of which ~55% are female), if they aren’t getting votes then surely it isn’t a conspiracy against women, it’s just the case that they aren’t good enough, or don’t appeal to voters? I don’t see the issue…

    Sam Ling
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    This article does not make the case that there is a voter bias, but that there are fewer candidates prepared to step forward.

    Alex
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    Surely then it is up to women to do just that. There are no actual barriers to entry beyond those that the women have internalised in their own head due to social norms.
    By comparison, I have been taught that being “nice” and “working hard” is what leads to success when really it is networking and posturing. However I do not have workshops and constructed role models which teach me how to do this.
    We cannot keep giving women free hands up. We have removed all institutional discrimination and women have done a great job (a much better job than men) at emancipating themselves from their gender role. But, as they say, with great power comes great responsibility, and that means women themselves have to take the plunge.
    I do not think there is any discrimination to be addressed when more women are actually at university than men.
    They can run, they have a larger potential voter pool (more women), they are not generally seen as “silly” or “above their station”, and they are often very good at getting connected to the cliques. What’s missing? Oh yes, the women themselves actually putting themselves forward.
    If I were to be cynical, I’d rather think certain Sabbs simply periodically feel the need to justify their jobs 😉

  3. avatar

    The relationship between representation and gender is not so clear cut as everyone seems to think.

    Intersectionality has shown that social subordination is cross-cutting and complex; research ‘Kyriarchy’ if you want to know more.
    The narrow caste of anglo-american white wealthy men who have traditionally held power, and continue to have a significant amount of power, have sculpted the social norms which gave rise to sexism, and gives rise to lots of different discriminations.

    I think we have to encourage men who are unprivileged in aspects unrealted to their gender, and actively promote equality, to take positions of power, which is why, if a women’s officer was to be instituted, SUSU should seriously consider a Men’s officer committed to equality too.

    This would run counter to what most feminists believe, but to my mind simply trying to get women in to power because they’re women presents a 2D solution to a 3D problem.

    Claire Gilbert
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    Hello! I completely agree and empowering disengaged courses and groups that don’t engage in the union was also a brief discussion had, and one that will hopefully be targetted with the VP Communities role from July 1st!

    The discussion was centered around women as currently they are in the majority yet represented in the minority.

    Oli
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    Agree with Claire! As your new VP Communities I am already looking into exactly which groups or communities are least engaged with SUSU. For this I will be using the voting stats from last 5 years of SUSU elections as they are the easiest to retrieve.

    Hopefully with this data I can start to work to re-engage the specific groups, and tailor target the work that SUSU does, rather than just assume that every group is the same!

  4. avatar

    I think, if it is indeed true that females don’t feel empowered to run, that the problem lies far above us and SUSU.

    Percentage of women in UK Parliament? 25%.
    House of Lords? 20%.
    Female PMs in the history of UK? One.

    So, even if we assume that this is an issue, the problem is in the society, and not our union. I am of the opinion that if we try to artificially “fix” those numbers in one way or another, even if it involves doing workshops, we will just be really unfair to someone else.
    Are we doing empowerment training for shy people? For international students? For short men? No, we are not.

    I could think of groups that are more severely underrepresented than women are in our union and I don’t think this should be on our list of priorities.

    Sam Ling
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    Although I agree with your point on this being a much bigger issue than simply our Union, I believe Universities are a perfect place to challenge cultural issues in wider society, with those coming out of University taking those values with them slowly changing society at large.

    I think there is an awful lot of repression in the world, however when you look at the proportion of women in the University and the painfully low numbers getting into roles its stark by sheer scale of the issue.

    If there are other groups with lower levels of representation we should of course challenge that, and I would be supportive of that action as well, however that should not mean that we don’t tackle this.

    I thought I’d also say here that I’ve appreciated the WS comments being reasonable and thought out in engaging with the topics on the whole

    Andrea
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    I appreciate that I probably have a very different view on this whole situation than most, but I would (and a lot of other people I spoke to on the matter) just be far happier if we were to have an all-inclusive single policy on making efforts to:
    1. Find out why are less women running, why are less international students running, why are we engaging less medical students, and so on.
    2. See what we can do to bring SUSU to them and tell them how they can benefit from getting involved into running the union.
    I am sorry, but I just don’t think our half an hour session at the council was long enough to gather all the opinions on the topics in order to write a good policy.

    Chris
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    I’m in agreement with Andrea. The fact that less females are running is a symptom – a product of a “mechanism” (see Hmm’s earlier comment) of sorts that we need to understand fully before we can specify an appropriate policy. I personally believe, we should as far as possible avoid penalising able and responsible male candidates on the grounds that their simply isn’t enough female representation in positions of responsibility. Equality is definitely worth striving for, but doing it in a way that is somewhat arbitrary is not only unfair in itself, but it also undermines the objective.

    Claire Gilbert
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    Just sticking my 2 cents in, because you both make very valid points!

    It isn’t about discouraging able males, and it isn’t about penalising them, it is about creating an environment in which more women are encouraged to run. It doesn’t mean they will win, but it means they at least have the chance to win.

    It massively is a societal problem and after the Sabb debate yesterday of whether or not SUSU should be political I think this emphasises the point that SUSU should be doing everything it can to give as many opportunities to all its members.
    We recognised there was a problem and are now trying to do something about it!

    Chris
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    Thanks for your input Claire, and thank you for better articulating the point I was trying to make!

  5. avatar

    It’s worth remembering that in 2008/09 the sabbatical team was predominantly female. That there had only been one female president before 2000 and in the decade that followed there were 3.

    SUSU has come on leaps and bounds and it may be that in this specific year there are less women running for positions but it is certainly not as bad as this article makes it out to be.

    Ellie Sellwood
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    Thank you for your comment Grandad, this is what I stated, when I said that if SUSU hadn’t progressed so far then I would not be in my position. Thank you for giving me some perspective of just how far it has come, I appreciate it. However, that does not mean that we can’t continue to progress.

  6. avatar
    Elizabeth Coates

    Good. My argument is that even if they was just one person in the entire university who had a trait (such as being female, an international student, etc) that marks them as different to the rest of the populace, their views HAVE to be represented, or at least they can have their say.

    In this case, women do outnumber men at university, and so we must be represented. Politics might be a bloodbath, but it does bow to democracy, and as long as women have their vote (and we intend to keep it!) they would like the chance for their views to be represented.

    But who the hell wants to face down a bunch of men? Margaret Thatcher was a lady you wouldn’t mess with, but did she further women’s cause? No, because she was no ordinary woman. The ordinary woman feels she must be seen and not heard in these matters for they are intimidated.

    Marvellous article Ellie 😀

    Ellie Sellwood
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    You make some fantastic points Elizabeth, thanks for taking the time to comment and thanks for the support!

    Alex
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    Why do you assume that because you’re a woman you only have one prime minister you can possibly be inspired by?

    Thatcher’s role model was a particularly ballsy, warlike male: Churchill. She claimed to owe nothing to feminism (though she was promoted to Heath’s cabinet tokenistically, probably in response to the recent equal pay demonstrations). And she got where she was by obsessive hard graft, not by subscribing to some wishy-washy “sisterhood” construct.

    It’s not about being a woman, facing down men, it’s about being a person, facing down other people. If you can’t hack it, get out of the kitchen – and there are just as many men who can’t hack it. You have to be pretty special to make it to the top of anything, no matter what your gender. Women, crazily enough, have a wide range of different personalities and motives just like men, there is no such thing as a “normal” woman. A certain personality is what gives you the drive and callousness to reach high office.

  7. avatar

    And this is EXACTLY why the suggestion to rename the Redbrick area ‘Thatcher Plaza’ should not be seen as a mere joke.

    As another commenter observed, gender inequality is a wider issue in society. How can we possibly consider passing up the opportunity to celebrate Britain’s greatest female political leader?

    Commemorating Lady Thatcher by renaming the Redbrick in her honour will remind all female students that women can be politically successful. To rename the Redbrick, the very area on which much of the drama of Elections Week takes place, after Britain’s first female Prime Minister would be of great encouragement for female candidates. Thatcher’s political career began at a young age, too.

    As an added bonus, commemorating Lady Thatcher would serve to distance SUSU from the NUS: a fine body with noble aims, but (as the NUS referenda of recent years have proved) politically toxic for Soton’s sabbs.

    Simon
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    Thatcher was indeed a good female role model, but she also stands for a political ideal which by no means all students agree with. Giving the university a conservative image through Thatcher Plaza is just as inappropriate as the NUS’s connections to labour.

  8. avatar

    It.s worth adding to this that it may just be an issue at the top of SUSU politics. Over the past few years the number of female JCR Presidents and Vice Presidents has risen. In fact this year we have 3 all female Pres/VP teams as well as 4 female JCR Presidents this year.

    It will be interesting in a few years time to see if those females who went for JCR Pres and VP carry on into SUSU, and if not, then to find out why not.

  9. avatar

    “Marcus Burton, Union Councillor, made an interesting point which was that in men attributes of assertiveness, public speaking and indendent thought are encouraged from an early age and in women they aren’t and so we should give women these same skills.”

    This article and in particular the quote makes the mistake of mass generalization and splits the student community into two huge groups. There are huge imbalances (much larger than the average gender imbalance) in attributes such as leadership between individual students due to their differing characters, families, culture, education (pre-uni), wealth, experience, and so on. The stats suggest the list should include gender as well, but unlike the other factors there is no explanation for it. But ultimately this is just one of many imbalances in society, all of which need to be addressed. It seems to be that gender imbalances receive more attention simply because they are visible on the surface.

  10. avatar

    Electing a women’s officer is a sexist act in itself because it suggests that all women want the same thing. Real gender equality is not considering gender at all when you make a decision, whether that’s a decision to run for a position or to vote for a candidate.

    Sasha
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    is it therefore racist to have an international officer? for me, a womens officer is about liberation – just like liberating LGBTQ students, liberating BME students, and internationals.

    Your point on real gender equality is right – but thats the point really from my perspective – were not in a situation where gender isnt considered in either way, partly, to my mind, because of a lack of role models, leading to a lack of confidence or a realisation that its a viable option.

    thats true of not just women, of course, as we lose lots of people whod be great leaders, just because no one said they should go for it. that said, the ratio of men/women leaders and candidates – over a long period of time as well, not just one-off years – given there are a majority of women on campus, suggests that there is something up, and we should at least try to look into it.

    whether thats making more of an effort to talk to good people, and try to convince them to run, or running workshops, what the discussion was about, was saying that the current balance is wrong, and we should try and think of something. for me, a womens officer would give that guaranteed focus of someone committed to just that.

    Anon
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    Surely the problem is a wider sociological one rather than something inherent to the University. ‘Encouraging’ women to run certainly doesn’t create a more democratic atmosphere, and even if it pushes more women into SUSU it isn’t a long term solution. I severely doubt that one person can make any difference whatsoever to the gender gap without more time, consideration and resources than SUSU can provide, which is perfectly understandable. Electing a ‘women’s officer’ seems pretty patronising and it goes some way to making the whole University politics environment even further removed from reality. An ‘Equality officer’ is surely the more obvious choice, but with Chloe essentially fulfilling that role anyway, is it really necessary at all?

    I would also just like to mention that although I myself feel far from discriminated against, Chloe Green’s rhetoric just doesn’t seem to include men. She makes little attempt to address issues such as drug and alcohol abuse which are huge problems amongst young people, an issue that surely should be near the top of her agenda, but apparently isn’t worth her time. If inequality doesn’t enter into a certain welfare issue, it seems she wants nothing to do with it. This concerns me as this would seem to suggest she only acts in her capacity as Welfare Officer if she feels she has something or someone satisfying enough to get her teeth into. In the original Soton Tab article, it references her ‘mocking’ the idea of a men’s officer, and I would really like to the exact quote on that. As a member of the student body being represented by Chloe, I feel we have a right to know what she said.

    Anon
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    P.S. I obviously think everyone should be encouraged to run, regardless of background, race or sex.

    Anon
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    Sorry to keep reposting, but I’m also surprised that no-one has mentioned the disproportionate amount of Christian and secular members of SUSU. No attempt to address the imbalance of belief?

    Annie
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    No, it is not racist to have an international officer as international students have different needs to UK students (VISAs, finance, adjusting to a new country etc). However a female or homosexual student has the same needs as any other student, so what would their officer do? Having an officer for every section of the university just marginalises people.

    Ultimately, it is a personal decision whether or not to run for a position. The university’s male/female student leader statistics may be disproportionate, but the gender of a leader does not matter. People do not just relate to leaders of the same gender, sexuality, religion or race.

    I agree with Sasha that it would be a good idea to have an officer dedicated to encouraging people to run for student positions, but this officer should target everyone – not just sections of the university

  11. avatar
    A statistical problem

    Since candidates have to nominate themselves, it seems to me that they are unlikely to “average” students. In other words, with ~23000 students at the university, and only seven sabbs, it’s safe to say that anyone who honestly thinks they can win, is probably a few standard deviations from the norm.
    If we’re looking at such outliers, (nothing personal sabbs) the data we get is unlikely to be representative. We should perhaps look at the student body as a whole before making any decisions, not simply the makeup of a statistically insignificant board.

    A statistical problem
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    Clarification: The above comment refers to the articles tendency to draw generalizations about why female candidates might not be running, without providing any meaningful statistical evidence.

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