Along with working for OUSA as an Advocacy and Communications intern, I am also lucky to attend Western University, and enjoy an incredible student experience during my time there. Western is widely commended for a having a memorable Orientation Week. However, when I reflect on my O-Week it is not the concerts or the move-ins that first come to mind; rather it is when Sophie Helpard (shout out to my current boss, the Executive Director here at OUSA) introduced herself as the President of the University Students’ Council of Western. At the time, I was surprised but also inspired that the head of our student council was a strong and capable woman and it gave me hope that at Western there were no glass ceilings for the intelligent and passionate women on our campus.
Over the course of my undergraduate career, my optimistic first year self has sadly been proven wrong. Helpard was one of seven female USC presidents to be elected since the USC was founded in 1956. Of the three election cycles I have since witnessed, only four of the total twenty-six candidates for either the President or Vice President position were women. I applaud the incredible men that have taken on the President and Vice President roles over the past three years and the strides they have made in improving the student experience, as well as the men and women that took the risk to run for election, however it saddens me that we have seen so few women vie for some of the most influential forms of leadership one can have on Western’s campus. Should no woman run and win either of these positions in the next year, an entire cohort of Western students will fail to see either a female President or Vice President.
This problem is not solely at Western either. Of the twenty-two student associations that represent undergraduate students across the province, eight presidents are female. Although this may not sound like a startling number initially, women compose only 36% of student association presidents this year, and compose almost 60% of the student bodies across Ontario; when these numbers are compared, the gaps are evident. The underrepresentation of women in student government extends across Canada. For instance, according to a report compiled by Students Nova Scotia that considered the representation of men and women at the presidential levels over a five year period, 31.75% of student association presidents were women, while men accounted for presidents over 68.75% of the time. At the student government level, the gender gap between men and women is the most persistent at this level.
To some, this may seem trivial. What does it matter if women are represented in student government if their concerns are being considered by male presidents at their student government? First, we require a diverse set of experiences at our highest leadership levels in order to ensure that all marginalized groups are accurately being heard and responded to, but women’s representation is especially important because young women cannot be what they cannot see. The gender gap in student politics is largely attributed to the fact that less women run. Studies illustrate that one of the most effective ways of convincing more women to run and increase female political representation is for other women to run - the ultimate paradox. I concur that on Western’s campus the fact that only seven women have ever been at the USC’s highest leadership position perhaps contributes to the problem. If we do not make consistent efforts to increase women’s representation in student politics, I fear these gaps will persist.
Student government mirrors the underrepresentation of women in politics at municipal, provincial and national levels. Currently, 26% of Members of Parliament are women, below the 30% threshold for women to be adequately represented in legislature recognized by the UN and far below 50% required for full equality. The underrepresentation of women in student politics may contribute to chronic problem. According to a study by Lawless and Fox, people that run for student office are 11 percentage points more likely to run for political office, and in American Congress, over 40% of elected women were first elected to student government. Addressing the barriers that exist for women in politics at the student level consequently have a direct impact on addressing gender inequality at higher levels of government - something I think we should all be on board with! After all, when women are involved in politics they tend to work more collaboratively across party lines, they respond better to their constituents needs, and they prioritize gender equality and other gender-based issues, such as health, education and the economy.
So what can we do to close the gender gap in politics, on and off-campus?
First, we have to dismiss the assumption that gender equality will come naturally in Canada. In older democracies, such as Canada, the increase of women in parliament is stagnating because of assumptions that we will progress without active change. Instead, we need policies and programs in place the address the continued inequities based on gender, as well as race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, and class, on campus and in our broader political systems. The barriers that continue to exist for women, and other marginalized communities, are socialized and a product of gendered expectations. We have to recognize these barriers and deconstruct them.
The barriers that women face in student politics and politics are numerous: women perceive there is a bias against female candidates and receive sexist media coverage; they receive less encouragement to run and in order for women to run, often they have to be asked at least seven times to serious consider running; they have a lack of confidence in their qualifications and perceive a more exhaustive list of qualifications compared to their male counterparts; women perceive politics as being egotistical, and that politics does not have as great of an impact as other non-elected leadership positions; and women have fewer female role models which causes them to discount politics as a career, to name a few. To begin to deconstruct these barriers, I call on you to actively challenge these beliefs and bring them up in your discussions. If you recognize capable women on your campus with a passion for improving the lives of students, ask them to run, and ask them repeatedly. If you hear a woman say they are not sufficiently qualified - challenge them. Ask them what are the qualifications they have in mind. Encourage younger female students to get involved on campus so that perhaps they will feel sufficiently qualified to toss their name in the ring if they consider running in the future. If a woman says that they prefer working in non-elected positions supporting policy goals because they perceive they can contribute more by focusing on policy, ask them who is setting the student advocacy agenda.
We have come far in gender equality, but there remain many steps to go. Politics is one of the most influential places to make a difference and women need to be adequately represented at all levels. Therefore I call on you to do your part in igniting women’s leadership at one of the most influential levels - on campus - by asking and encouraging the capable and motivated women in your lives; if you happen to be a young women on a post-secondary campus who cares about the issues on your campus, I call on you to consider taking a risk and running for student government.