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.
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?
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.