Since the nomination deadline for the 2013/2014 SU election, concern has been expressed publicly over how few women have been standing for election, particularly since 2005. The trend is indeed troubling, and it is worthy of conversation. As the female executives serving since 2005, this letter is an effort to participate in the ongoing dialogue, to share our experiences, advice, and regrets, and to suggest some productive ways to move forward.
It is first important to note that the conversation about who is standing in SU elections is not just about women. It is rather a question that encompasses all the communities that – all too often — do not have the attention of the Students’ Union that they rightfully deserve. Mature, international, and aboriginal students are a few examples of student communities whose voices are chronically absent from the Students’ Union and student government more broadly. It is also important to note that the SU represents many faculties to the university and all three levels of Government who hardly ever have candidates standing for election; the faculties of medicine, pharmacy, and law are obvious examples.
This is all to say: it would not be unfair to describe the representation of students at the executive level of the Students’ Union as disproportionally geared towards a particular type of student experience. This is a shortcoming that the SU has been trying to address for some time; it is — of course — a difficult task, but an important one. To be clear, this is not a criticism of the current executive. None of us were as successful in representing the totality of the university community as we had hoped to be.
That being said, it is clear that the Students’ Union does have a real and immediate problem to respond to specifically with respect to women seeking office. In response to the question at hand: why are there not more women running? We haven’t got “the” answer, and neither does anyone else. Every individual who thinks seriously about running, obviously, has their own independent and personal reasons. However, Sydney Rudko’s piece for The Wanderer raises a point that we would like to echo here — if it were purely personal, you would see relatively equal numbers of men and women contesting these positions. That’s just statistics. Clearly, then, there are other factors to consider.
We don’t know what factors are causing the current students of campus to make the choices that they’re making about running for office. However, what we do know, are the reasons we chose to run — both the things that encouraged us and the obstacles we felt we were required to overcome. We identify these reasons in an effort to replicate such support for future students who want to run but are perhaps unsure how to best participate in student government, irrespective of the role they are considering.
One of the reasons that student leaders come disproportionally from student groups, residences, and fraternities is that, in our cases certainly, this is where one can meet people who have participated in previous election processes, successfully or otherwise. It is this inspiration, mentorship, and friendship from students who are already serving — irrespective of gender - that made the daunting task of running possible for us. Student councillors, faculty association leaders, and executives are students too. They commute, carry student debt, and have challenging academic experiences and their own hopes for their education.
This obviously simple fact was not obvious to us, however, until we sat down for tea with former candidates to commiserate on the obstacles to running in an election that all of these pressures represent. Further, it was helpful in making our own decisions to run to talk with other students thinking of getting involved, and while not everyone who considered it moved forward, they often went on to lead student services and create their own student groups and initiatives.
We found the campaign trail daunting and gruelling and yes, sometimes sexist. It’s hard to overhear “I’m not voting for her — she’s not that hot,” smile, and go talk to the next table, knowing full well that your odds of talking to someone who might vote are about 1 in 100. It’s just as hard to hear “oh you’ve got my vote because you’re a girl” before you have even had a chance to explain your platform and the ideas you would bring to the position you are contesting. It’s discouraging to worry about campus media making fun of you for using ‘girly’ colours, and not be able to defend yourself without coming across as “emotional” or “shallow.”
It’s scary to know that the decision to run, in addition to being deeply personal, is a women’s issue — you are expected to be an ambassador for your gender, even if all you want to do is make good on your campaign promises and leave campus a little better for your presence. It’s hard, but it’s worth it — it is really, really worth it. There are other, competing opportunities that are also worth it, but being on a student executive is a once in a lifetime experience that is, simply, life-altering. None of us regret taking the time out of our lives and our degrees to serve as Executives. We learned more about ourselves in that year than we could have possibly learned in any other position.
So, if you are a student who is curious or interested in student government, the most important message to take from the debate is this: write to people – any person who has been involved in student government. Anyone worth their salt who got involved did so because they believe in the process and want to see more people do so too. Never hesitate to reach out to any of us, ask questions, and do be honest about the barriers you experience in the process. Further, the SU has established an office – one of its kind in Canada – to help support the formal aspects of getting involved in student governance. We encourage all students to visit www.su.ualberta.ca/discover to learn more.
Finally, we congratulate the candidates who have taken the leap to put themselves forward this year. We look forward to your leadership on this and other issues not only for the communities you come from, but also for the many communities you represent.