International Women’s Day: Why we need to talk about female leadership

Today is International Women’s Day. It is important to use an occasion like this to talk about how far women have come in their quest for equal rights and equal standing in society. As a proud feminist, I am happy to see the attention the issue of gender inequality gets. However, there are still many serious issues women face in our society. One of them relates closely to the student governments and student unions that OUSA works so hard with: the issue of female leadership and representation in student governments at higher level positions.

I come from Western University and have been a part of Western University Students’ Council (USC)  in several positions in my time here. In the four years I have been a student, I have seen three women run for USC President. Out of those women who have ran, one was successful in her bid, and is now proudly serving us all today in this role (SHOUT OUT Sophie Helpard!!!). Watching last year’s USC elections for executive, I was happy to see gender parity amongst the candidates (three men and three women); however, watching this year’s USC elections for executive, I was disappointed to see the lack of gender diversity, as all the candidates that persisted through the race were men.

According to an article published in the Western Gazette, 55 percent of Western’s total undergraduate population identified as female last year.  Comparing this to the executive shows that women’s political representation is disproportionately low and that the student government does not reflect the composition of its student population. Having been involved in different capacities in different student groups, I know for a fact that Western doesn’t have any shortage when it comes to intelligent, smart, motivated, and driven women leaders. With that said, why is it that so few women run for office, specifically the office of the USC President?

This issue is not unique to the USC. According to an article in Inside Higher Ed in 2014, “the American Student Government Association estimates that about 40 percent of colleges, including community colleges, have female student body presidents. Out of the top 100 institutions ranked this year by U.S. News and World Report, about one-third have female student body presidents or other top executives. At the same time, the number of women going to and graduating from college outpaces the number of men.” With the trend showing that women will continue to outnumber men graduating from higher education, it is imperative we address this issue and there is no better time than now.

Kate Farrar, vice-president for campus leadership programs at the American Association of University Women, says that very few women run for office to begin with, and it is not about students refusing to elect women into office: “It’s really not that they don’t win, it’s that they’re not running. There’s this huge political ambition gap.” The article further states that according to reports, women are less likely to be exposed to politics compared to men, and often receive less encouragement to run for office.

With a lack of women already in office, it is hard for female students to find role models to look up to and emulate, not that women are uninterested in student politics. As a matter of fact, for the 2016-17 academic year, six out of the ten incoming faculty and affiliate council presidents in the USC are women. As it currently stands, out of the 33 councillors, 15 are women and 18 are men, which is close to parity. In a conversation with a male colleague, I brought up the issue of a lack of role models and he said women are already involved and run for executive positions. According to him, in the past, more women candidates have run for the position of Vice-President Student Events than men. He also talked about the fact that his own council executive has more women than men.

I refuse to accept this narrative as satisfactory or as an accomplishment; women should not be limited to vice-president roles while the president’s seat is filled by men year after year.

Many people have asked me why this matters to me, as a male student. This matters to me because I want to see my student government reflect the makeup of the campus population and because I want to hear diverse perspectives on issues that matter to students.  A democracy only functions well when all groups are represented and included at the table in an equitable capacity. Currently, that is not the case. Women and other minorities are underrepresented. It bothers me that the brilliant, creative, and motivated female leaders I know and have worked under are not running for presidency of their student unions on their respective campuses. The trend of men successively being elected presidents does not undermine their ability to lead, but it does raise the question of privilege and opportunity.

I think men should know that their privilege puts them in a unique spot to feel invested in closing the gap as far as female leadership on student governments is concerned. They have a platform and they should use it to bring the issue of gender imparity in executive positions to the forefront in conversations and discourses. Recognizing that male privilege is here to stay (for now), male leaders on campuses today should make it a mission and work intentionally to encourage female leaders on their campus to run for higher level positions. Men have the capacity to raise these concerns and have these concerns taken seriously and they need to leverage this privilege to ensure that the same opportunities are extended to women leaders as well. The continued conversation is necessary to address this issue and men need to step up to the challenge. This could happen through informal and formal means of mentorship and encouraging leaders with potential to consider running.

Our Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, made it a priority to ensure gender parity in his cabinet. When asked why this was a fundamental goal, his response was: “Because it’s 2015.” Well, we are in 2016 now, and I hope this is an issue that gets the attention it deserves soon. Now is an optimal time of year for student leaders to make a renewed commitment to this topic, as new student executives are setting their priorities and yearlong plans. Often, women have to be asked repeatedly to consider running, so let’s do that. Let’s continue to do that until the day when women freely consider running for office like men so quickly do today. I humbly challenge all student leaders, especially the incoming executives, to make this a personal goal and initiative. Frankly, I am done with seeing a lack of diversity in our governments and it is up to all of us to work together to make this change.

Gender is culturally defined and as such does not predetermine who should seek and hold leadership positions. This statement may seem obvious, but the fact that women are not running for higher leadership positions shows we need to keep repeating it. The only way for systems of power to become more inclusive and diverse is to ensure diverse voices are given access to power and the space to lead in their own ways. It’s time for change to happen and this change can only result from the continued commitment of all men who recognize their privileged access to systems of power to encourage women who lead their communities, faculties, clubs, and councils to take on bigger, higher-level, executive roles. International Women’s Day will end in a few hours, but this conversation needs to continue every single day until it becomes a non-issue. I personally can’t wait to see that day.