With our incoming sabbatical team consisting of four males, and female participation in students’ unions a hotly debated topic at the moment, Aoife Valentine seeks to get to the core of the gender gap problem
“I do wish there was a female on the incoming sabbatical team, and every year,” says UCD Students’ Union (UCDSU) President Rachel Breslin, the first female sabbatical officer in this University since 2007/08. Breslin is one of four women to have ever served as President, the most recent of whom served over almost 15 years ago. In the 38 years of the SU’s existence, there have been 30 female officers (counting Breslin twice as the only woman to have been successfully re-elected) which amounts to roughly 17% of all sabbatical officers. Though this is slightly above the national average of 15% for women elected to the Dáil, it is still very clear that there is a problem.
While it is acknowledged that this is an issue by most, many believe that it is something that is improving, with first year Union Class Representative (UCR) for Stage One English, Film and Drama, Ellen Mae Metzger pointing to a largely female group of Conveners (part-time officers) elected last month, stating: “When you look at the Convener elections, there are quite a few candidates who show potential for sabbatical positions in the coming years. So yes, I would say that, with regards to the future of women in sabbatical positions, it is improving.”
This is something that UCDSU Gender Equality Co-ordinator Ciara Johnson refutes, commenting: “To be blunt, no. I think that can be seen from this years’ elections, while women may have run for positions, they have been hesitant to enter races which are contested or those for sabbatical positions.” On this matter, it’s interesting to look at the list of past officers and note that it was a relatively regular occurrence for two women to be elected in a given year 20 years ago. While there were still many years where the Students’ Union was made up of all men, in the last decade, only four women have been elected to office, out of 49 available positions. Next year’s team contains no women, and it is hard to argue that things are improving when faced with numbers such as this.
Why then, is the Union becoming an increasingly unattractive prospect for female students? Breslin believes that the Union’s perception has a large part to play, stating: “It’s probably a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you look at the poster of the sabbatical team and you see five guys, it becomes subconsciously or consciously ingrained in you that that’s a man’s job, that there must be something particularly male about that job if it’s coincidentally five guys, so I think that’s the start of it.”
Union of Students in Ireland (USI) Equality Officer Laura Harmon agrees, naming one of the key issues as being “visualisation, so if you can’t see yourself in a role, then you’re not going to put yourself forward.” This is something she feels the statistics back up for student politics nationally. “In general there’s about 20% of sabbatical officers in students’ unions, excluding USI Officer Board, who are female… There are some notable statistics, like there are just five female full time presidents within students’ unions at the moment and there are nine students’ unions that have no female sabbatical officers at all.”
Johnson believes this is one of a number of factors that make women “hesitant to put themselves forward”. She cites women selling themselves short and not being as readily encouraged to run for election as their male counterparts, along with being more risk averse as some of these reasons, though she places an emphasis on the criticism and judgements women receive while running an election campaign.
She explained: “As a woman running, you are scrutinised and analysed in every single way, and while I agree that every candidate should be tested on their policy, experience, ideas and aptitude, for women this seems to extend further. People judge appearance, how you dress, how you talk, how ‘emotionally involved’ you are… This was something which I found to be quite shocking and startling. One person said to me at one stage that they would not vote for a woman as they would become too emotionally invested in the position and would most likely ‘end up in tears at least once a month on their hormonal roller coaster’. At another stage speaking passionately was interpreted as ‘aggression’ which was an unladylike quality. One male student told a canvasser that if I ‘lost a few pounds’ and did myself up, I ‘wouldn’t be too bad’ and another commented that if I ‘got [my] tits out’ he’d vote for me. I am pretty sure; in fact I am positive that none of this would have been said had I been male. If women witness this kind of behaviour and attitude towards other women, why would they want to run?”
It seems these experiences are more universal than we’d like to think, with Harmon also citing judgements based solely on looks or clothing being common, and Breslin stating: “Rather disappointingly, it’s easier for the guy to be seen as the cool candidate… I think women have to prove more of a point that they’re hard and can negotiate difficult situations and lead. Males are seen more as natural leaders, more naturally hard line, and more able to hold their ground, where females are seen as more emphatic and caring and not as able to deliver.”
Former SU President Pat de Brún took a similar stance, stating: “Objectively… no. All candidates are subjected to the same rules… In terms of perception however, it’s a different matter entirely. I do believe it’s true that women who put themselves forward for election are often scrutinised more negatively than their male counterparts. Why that is exactly is not easy to answer, and I suspect it has deeply embedded cultural reasons. Around elections you often here the truism that women don’t vote for other women, or tend to be more critical than they would be of male candidates. Maybe that’s true, or maybe it’s just a bullshit excuse to blame women themselves for being discriminated against.”
Metzger however, believes that campaigns are difficult for everyone. She commented: “I can understand where the media, and anyone else with that perception, is coming from but I don’t hold that belief myself. I view it as being equally difficult for anyone running a campaign.”
Given that many people believe that barriers do exist to women getting elected, it is unsurprising that a number of motions were discussed centring around encouraging female participation in students’ unions at the USI’s annual policy-making conference, Congress. What is interesting to note however, is that a number of these motions fell. Harmon is keen to highlight that many delegates found that the motions weren’t far-reaching enough, as she explained: “People found the term ‘participation’ to be quite tokenistic, as opposed to saying female representation, participation seems to indicate something lesser. I think that that might have been one of the reasons why people voted against it.”
However, it is impossible to ignore the fact that a number of female delegates spoke against the motion, stating that they felt it was insulting to suggest that women needed more encouragement than males. Metzger was one such student at Congress, and she believes it is necessary to encourage everyone, of all genders, to run for election: “I don’t believe that there should a separate campaign for encouraging women. If someone male or female wishes to run for a position then they will, I think more needs to be done with regards encouraging people in general to run. In my opinion putting an emphasis on getting women to run could not only discourage men from running but also add pressure to female candidates.”
De Brún is adamant that encouragement is necessary, pointing to other countries as examples: “I do believe that there are things that can be done, and they need to be done… It’s not a coincidence that socially progressive countries such as in Scandinavia have much better levels of female participation than we do. For me, that is proof enough that positive action can lead to greater participation.”
This is echoed by Johnson, who says: “Every year, I hear people argue that women have just as much of an opportunity to run. If you asked me a few years ago, I may have agreed, but this attitude completely fails to acknowledge the continued dearth of female candidates and totally ignores the potential barriers that discourage women from putting themselves forward for election. We as a Union need to take an active approach in understanding why it is that we have only had four female sabbats in the past ten years. Continuing arguing that women have equal opportunity is ignoring the underlying problems we clearly have and merely attempts to sweep them under the carpet.”
Breslin believes that we need to go one step further and impose gender quotas in politics. This suggestion is often met with much controversy, but she feels now it’s necessary: “I was previously very much against gender quotas but now I think when we need a cultural change and we need it fast, then I think quotas will achieve that, but they’re only a short-term thing. When children grow up and see female TDs and females in all different areas of power and public positions, I think that will make a real difference. I was always of the opinion that, ‘Well I made it and it was fine, it wasn’t a big issue’ but that forgets… the women who aren’t there to make those arguments, because of one of these barriers, tangible or intangible… Just because one person makes it, doesn’t mean there is no glass ceiling… I don’t think it is insulting at all that there are additional factors that would need to be put in place, because it’s never long term… It’s only insulting if you’re saying it’s the solution, but I’m saying it’s just a step in the solution.”
This is something that Harmon agrees with, stating: “USI doesn’t have current policy on gender quotas, but on a personal level, I am in favour of affirmative action,” though Johnson and de Brún both believe that putting in the “groundwork” that is very actively encouraging women to run for election through visible campaigns and workshops, and introducing the concept from a young age, will result in women being more confident putting themselves forward for election. Metzger however, believes this will result in lesser candidates being elected: “If someone, male or female wishes to run then they will. Installing gender quotas, in my opinion, could make someone with better qualifications and more passion for the position, be disregarded.”
It’s clear that there is no solution universally agreed, or indeed proven, to mend the gender gap in politics, and indeed many other industries. De Brún posits a curious point on this when he says: “An interesting difference is the fact that many people argue that women don’t get ahead in politics (and business, for example) due to conflicts with family commitments. These concerns play a much smaller role in the university environment, but despite that we see equally bad or worse rates of participation. This leads me to believe that the issue is not about opportunity, but rather about how the role of women is perceived in society on an extremely subtle level.” This is something Breslin touched on, when she stated that often it comes down to society “valuing male opinions over female opinions” and viewing men as “a safer bet”.
It seems that reforming how society views women, down to their basic competencies, is at the base of what needs to change if women are ever to be seen equally. It is somewhat a chicken and egg argument however, as views are difficult to change without women proving themselves, but it is difficult for them to do just that, in the current social climate, where women aren’t being elected. While both Breslin and Harmon emphasised their wishes to work with organisations like Women for Election, to help increase the numbers of female names on ballot papers so they’re in with a fighting chance of election, perhaps work needs to be done to convince the electorate that their bias is unfounded, as well.
Johnson sums it up when she says: “I don’t think women should be under-estimated; the ability and talent of any person will to come to the fore, irrespective of their gender, provided they are on a level playing pitch with members of the opposite sex. But, this can only be done by creating a cultural change, whereby women are expected to and are encouraged to have the same role and active participation in politics as men.”