The February 15 SU executive elections deadline has passed, and though the turnout is decent, the list of potential executives is concerning. The names listed for the five executive positions are as follows: William, Kevin, Petros, Saadiq, Anthony, Dustin, Josh and Adam. Though many of these candidates are competent and will go on to serve as excellent executives, there is something missing. The flaw is obvious: there are no female candidates. For the fourth consecutive year, the Students’ Union executive will be all-male. In this article, I intend to outline my experiences both as a SU executive and as a former executive that has spent considerable time encouraging female candidates to run. Though my evidence is only anecdotal, it is clear to me that men and women approach executive elections differently. Moreover, I will argue that we must look further than the simplistic both men and women have the choice to run argument, which ignores some underlying problems in our Students’ Union.
Before I continue, it is important that I briefly describe the SU executive elections. For those that know little about the Students’ Union, or who are intensely skeptical, let me explain. Even as a former Students’ Union executive (Vice-President Academic, in 2011-2012), I see several flaws in the organization that merit attention. Much like any large-scale organization (the U of A SU represents over 33,000 undergraduate students, both domestic and international), bureaucratic procedures can limit creativity and progress. However, exploring the SU as a whole is not the intention of this article. Instead, readers should understand that the Students’ Union is a strong and effective organization made up of thousands of volunteers and hundreds of paid staff that keep the gears running, 365 days of the year. The Students’ Union advocates on local, provincial and national levels; it runs one of the most active buildings on campus; and it oversees over a dozen student faculty associations on campus, such as the Medical Students’ Association, Business Students’ Association and Education Students’ Association, whether they like it or not.
With these points in mind, serving as a Students’ Union executive is a daunting endeavour. Simply running in the February-March elections is a significant undertaking. My only mental breakdown in university took place following my VP Academic run in March 2010, and I ran unopposed. (Missing several consecutive weeks of class was bad…) If candidates are serious about winning, then they must skip two weeks of classes, with the entire reading break dedicated to elections preparation. Rather than attend classes, the best executive candidates are out shaking hands, working non-stop from 8 am until 6 pm, with various debates and meetings scheduled in-between.
And this only considers running for a position. For those that win, serving as a SU executive adds an entire year onto a student’s degree, and often dents one’s GPA. Simply put, serving as an executive is a full-time job. You spend upwards of 70 hours per week in the positions, and learn quickly that balancing work with social life and physical activity – not to mention family time – is a delicate act.
With this in mind, it is difficult to communicate my unhappiness regarding this year’s slate of SU executives. I cannot say, however, that I am surprised. During my four years on campus, potential male and female candidates have approached the elections in noticeably different ways. When I encourage men to run for an executive position, the response is much more open, in comparison to the responses of women that I nudge to run. Below, I describe my experiences encouraging both men and women to run; however, for now, it’s important to state that the Students’ Union needs to continue to actively attempt to understand why it is that we are entering a fourth consecutive year of an all-male executive. Every year, I hear my peers say that women have just as much of an opportunity to run, yet this sort of statement ignores the potential barriers that discourage women from putting their names forward.
Over the last two years, while serving as VP Academic of the SU and now as an involved student with a healthy distance from student government, I’ve done my best to encourage female students to run in the SU elections. I found that during my first two years on campus, I would often encourage men to become involved in the Students’ Union, probably because I tended to spend time with my brothers in the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, an organization that has developed a reputation as a source of Students’ Union councillors and executives. Since then, I’ve learned that I must actively seek out female candidates that show promise as SU executives. Some of these women are in Students’ Council, some are in sororities, some are in student faculty associations and others are in various student clubs. During the last few months, I encouraged a handful of women to run in the SU elections, with all declining for a variety of reasons. I am certain that each of these women would have been outstanding executives, and that they were more than ready to take the plunge in tightly-contested elections.
However, what I have seen is that men and women approach SU elections in much different ways. When I ask women to run for SU executive positions, they are flattered, but do not see themselves as potential candidates (for the most part). Many of these women will say that they’re not prepared, which is for the most part, wrong. In other cases, these women will say that they will run for their student faculty association executive, which are smaller-scale and less ambitious executive positions. In other cases, these potential executives will serve as campaign managers in the SU executive elections, which is a more behind-the-scenes role.
Conversely, when I ask men, I receive a much different response. Simply put, the wheels start turning in a man’s head. Even if the man with whom I am talking is much less qualified than the women that I have approached, he will actively consider the possibility of becoming an executive. Indeed, he might even begin to envision himself as the executive in question, much sooner than many of his female peers. Men are more open to taking the plunge. This observation seems to fall in line with a recent paper published by Richard Fox of New York’s Union College, entitled “Gender, Political Ambition and the Decision Not to Run for Office.” In this paper, Fox remarks that “By a margin of over 20 percent, women rate themselves less qualified than men to hold office.” Moreover, Fox notes in the conclusion that “we are a long way from a political reality in which women and men are equally likely to aspire to attain high-level elective office.” I strongly encourage you to read through this study, which takes only thirty minutes.
Based on my experiences, here are three recommendations to current and former active members of the Students’ Union, as well potential female candidates in SU executive elections:
1. To potential female candidates: do not sell yourselves short. Serving as a Students’ Union executive is a tremendous experience. Moreover, it is a challenge. How often does a twenty-something year-old get to oversee a ten million dollar organization, work with some brilliant political advisors, participate in interviews with the Edmonton Journal, Globe and CBC, develop and execute a list of goals, and develop an ease in navigating complexity, both within the university and on a variety of political levels? Serving as a campaign manager is nice and all, but it’s a cop-out. You get to help elect your friends, but you never experience serving as an executive first-hand. Moreover, becoming president of your student faculty association is a significant achievement, but there really is no comparison between serving as VP Finance of a $10,000,000 organization with a 300-person paid staff, or a $500,000 one. If someone is actively encouraging you to run for the executive, they’re doing so for a reason. If you genuinely believe that you’re cut out for the job, but really don’t want to run for whatever reason, that’s fine. However, you need to know that you do have what it takes to run the largest student association on campus.
2. To former SU executives and highly-involved student leaders: encourage female students to run for office. Too often, I see males encourage males to run. This perpetuates the idea of an “old boys club,” which could justifiably reflect the current (and two previous) Students’ Union executives, with no female in an executive role since the 2009-2010 year. In the same study highlighted above, Fox finds that “the gender gap in the interest in seeking elective office narrows substantially when a formal political actor offers the suggestion [to a female].” Thankfully, I know that there are former SU executives encouraging women to run; however, that is sometimes not enough. If you have served in a student leadership position, it is your duty to encourage other talented students to run, and there’s no question that many of those students should be women.
3. To everyone: talk about this issue. If we don’t view this as a problem, then what will prevent the next four years from following the same path? Near the tail end of my term as the VP Academic, the Students’ Union began to conduct research on female representation trends at student associations across the country. This is an admirable activity. Moreover, student organizations such as the Network of Empowered Women, founded by several University of Alberta students, is another example of moving this conversation forward. However, the gap has yet to be bridged. I see too many excellent candidates not putting their names forward, or only briefly consider the possibility before determining that they aren’t ready for the job.
Without a doubt, simply running in the Students’ Union executive election is a huge undertaking. The year as an executive is equally challenging. However, this should not deter so many outstanding women from putting their names forward. I write this article not only because I’m concerned about the all-male executive to come in the SU, but due to the wider implications within our society. Research indicates that boards of directors with strong male and female representation are more effective than those with only males. Moreover, we should do whatever we can to ensure that everyone has equal opportunity to pursue their goals. We’re not there yet, but with the right approach, we can ensure that we slowly push the ball forward in seeing better female representation in our student government.
With this said, I wonder what SU executive candidates think about the fourth year of an all-male executive. Is this acceptable? Or is this a cause for concern? If so, what do you intend to do to lead to positive change?
CC photograph courtesy of chrisinplymouth on Flickr.