Shifting The Balance Of Power

Positive discrimination was firmly on the agenda this week at SUSU as several meetings saw discussions themed around increasing women’s representation within the union. Shane Murphy, VP Student Engagement, led […]

Positive discrimination was firmly on the agenda this week at SUSU as several meetings saw discussions themed around increasing women’s representation within the union.

Shane Murphy, VP Student Engagement, led a policy debate at Monday’s union council, with sabbaticals extolling the virtues of gender balancing. This system would bias elections in favour of female candidates, based on a proposal narrowly rejected at last week’s NUS National Conference, at which four of the sabb team were invited observers.

Shane introduced the council discussion with the fact that in the history of SUSU more people called Dave have been elected Union President than women. While perhaps an interesting point, I don’t imagine his name is the source of, for example, David Gilani’s electoral success, although perhaps a change of name wouldn’t hurt if being president is something you aspire to.

Several union councilors expressed their concerns to me after the meeting, worried that gender balancing would reduce confidence in SUSU’s democracy and critically undermine the credibility of a union with an uneven electoral playing-field. Would a female sabbatical or student leader elected with a lower number of votes than a rival but boosted by gender balancing have the same mandate to carry out their manifesto?

What particularly bothered me about the union council debate was that it seemed to be based on the premise that the SUSU membership were wrong to elect the candidates they did. There seems to be no room for the idea that perhaps the five men and two women elected to the current and the next sabbatical team were elected as individual people on the strength of their own arguments and campaigns.

When I decided to mount my own sabbatical campaign last year, at no point did I think “I may be representing the males of the university here” in the same way I wasn’t specifically representing people with dyed hair or ale drinkers (well, perhaps the latter.) In elections week, it’s every man or woman for his or herself, but then the winners are required to bear in mind the interests of all students. When voting at SUSU, has the thought “I must make sure my preferred candidates are gender-balanced” ever crossed anyone’s mind? I sincerely hope not.

Chloe Green, VP Welfare, put a different proposal on the agenda at Thursday’s welfare committee, arguing strongly in favour of the reintroduction of a women’s officer. Men’s and women’s officers were removed from the SUSU structure in 2011. It wasn’t made clear whether Chloe intends the role to be focused on gender related issues or purely to address the perceived democratic imbalance, but it was certainly clear that Chloe would not want the return of a men’s officer, openly mocking the suggestion when committee members raised it.

Personally, I am very concerned at the tone of these debates, the assumptions that seem to have been made and the will there seems to be to introduce measures that fight the perception of inequality with actual quantifiable inequality. I believe an unfair voting system would increase the disconnect SUSU members feel from the union’s democratic processes and also undermine the efforts of candidates and elected officers of both genders.

Recreating the women’s officer position would be a regressive step, making the issues of women seem niche when actually women make up a slight majority of SUSU membership and dismissing men’s issues altogether when actually men also face problems specific to their gender that are already too often swept under the carpet. If a dedicated officer for women is needed, are the people we have elected not adequately representing the student body? I’d prefer to think that they have sufficient empathy or at least do enough research to be able to support a diverse range of students, many of whom obviously they will have little in common with.

These measures seem to me to be heavy-handed and unnecessary. I have confidence that the officers we elect represent students equally and to the best of their ability regardless of which particular type of genitals they have under their clothes.

University of Southampton