By Aisha Sajid, October 10, 2017 —
The Students’ Union byelection is fast approaching and students have a wide range of candidates to chose from in the races they are eligible to vote in. But this diversity isn’t always present in student politics.
The University of Alberta Students’ Association commissioned a research study that found women are less likely than men to run in student politics. The study said that this is because of differences in behaviour between men and women, such as women lacking confidence when compared to their male counterparts. The student-led research study is the first of its kind in Canada and was prompted by low participation of women in student elections. On average, only 25 per cent of candidates running for these positions are women, leading to a low number of women being elected to executive positions.
The University of Calgary SU has a slightly better track record than most students’ unions. From 2014–2017, 34 per cent of candidates for executive positions have been women, with at least one woman being elected to the executive team each year, though the last time a woman was elected as president was Lauren Webber in 2010.
We shouldn’t congratulate ourselves yet. The U of C’s SU shouldn’t be an exception to the norm. More women running for and winning executive positions should be a reality across all Canadian campuses.
Voters do not discriminate against female candidates running for student body positions. The issue is that few of the already small population of female students interested in student politics act on their interest. The same effect is also evident in provincial and federal politics. The considerable barrier that prevents many women from running is referred to as the ‘confidence gap,’ coined by political scientist Seymour Lipset. This term means that women who do not run for different levels of government cite a lack of confidence as the thing stopping them. This also explains the trend in student politics.
In the U of A study, women reported feeling they did not have the time, knowledge, expertise or confidence to run. Those that do run often have negative experiences of being disregarded by the student body or receiving ‘unconstructive comments’ in addition to concerns about their appearances, as current SU VP student life Hilary Jahelka outlined in her recent Gauntlet letter to the editor.
Although student governance does not exactly mirror the processes of provincial or federal politics, the field is often regarded as men’s work, where women become token candidates. They are expected to represent a large population of women from diverse and intersectional backgrounds, even though that is usually not the case. The best way to change this mindset is by starting a conversation about why women should run.
We should encourage female students so that they do not second guess themselves out of running for student politics. Filling out nomination papers, memorizing platform points, creating absurd costumes to garner attention and remaining enthusiastic every day of the campaign is hard work. Being a woman should not be the reason someone doesn’t run. When the majority of the student population is female, seeing more women run and become elected should no longer be a nice surprise — it should be the norm.