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Study explores impacts of gender, race, and sexuality in student politics

The University of Alberta Students’ Union is the first in Canada to publish a study on the impacts of gender, race, and sexual orientation on undergraduate students’ experiences in student government.

The study, called “Identity Matters!”, explored the impact of student’s identities on their desire and confidence to run for elected positions, as well the experiences of women and minorities in elected offices. It compiled results from surveys sent to all undergraduate students, surveys of current student councillors, and interviews with past executives.

Students’ Union vice-president (academic) Shane Scott was one of the research analysts on the project. Scott says that the decision to conduct the study was a reaction to the low representation of women on the SU executive in recent years.

“We started asking questions around why there have been so few female executives elected,” Scott said. “We found that there wasn’t really an explanation for it at a university level.”

Of the five current executives, only one is a woman. From 2010 to 2014 there were no females on the SU executive team.

The researchers found that desire to run in elections is approximately equal among male and female students, but that women struggled more with self-doubts in their decision to run, as well as doubts from others students in their abilities or qualifications.

“(Women) faced a lot of second-guessing, and they identified a lot more micro-aggressions that men didn’t report,” Scott said. “Once they were in a position, they identified that they felt like they had to do more and better than their (male) counterparts, and they also felt like they were being constantly undermined or underestimated in their positions.”

Female students reported that they received unsolicited comments about their appearances during elections, and were more conscious of how they dressed and presented themselves during campaigns. Of all the female undergraduates surveyed, 75 per cent said they had experienced gender-based discrimination on campus.

The study also collected information on the experience of visible minorities in student governance. The results showed that students who identified as visible minorities were more likely to want to run in student elections than Caucasian students. However, visible minority respondents also reported facing challenges in elected office that other executives and councillors didn’t experience.

“Visible minorities were more likely to identify that they felt out of place in situations they were put into in their role as an executive,” Scott said. “They were hyperaware of being people of colour or visible minorities.”

Executives of colour reported feeling especially out of place in meetings with the primarily white University Senate and Board of Governors, and experienced implicit racism in interactions with fellow students and with university administrators.

The study also asked questions regarding the sexual orientation of participating students, and found that this aspect of identity had little to no impact on student’s governance experience.

“There’s a lot of speculation we can make on how that trend came forward,” Scott said. “One suggestion is that it’s less of a visible trait, so it’s something that people don’t necessarily see right away.”

Scott hopes that this study will inspire other universities to carry out similar research, to determine whether the experiences identified by respondents to this study are unique to the University of Alberta, or if they are common throughout post-secondary governance.

“I’m hoping that other student’s unions will also do research along the same lines so we can see if this something that is prevalent across other institutions,” Scott said. “I’m calling it a call to action for other schools to take up arms when it comes to ensuring we have good gender representation at a governance level.”

The full results of the “Identity Matters!” study are available here.

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