Why we need more women in student leadership positions

 

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The Independent Online

When I first arrived at the University of Sheffield three years ago, I thought I had the world at my feet. I was a politics student at a Students’ Union buzzing with activism; I could do what I wanted. I’d always considered myself a feminist - growing up in a religious school where girls weren’t allowed to take part in certain activities made me aware that sexism was still rife in society.

I thought at university it would be different. Instead what I saw were political groups where women’s voices were silenced, syllabuses with no mention of feminism and student elections where women candidates faced abuse purely because of their gender. No, this wasn’t the sexism I’d previously experienced, but its subtlety didn’t make it any less damaging. When complaints about sexual harassment are termed as divisive by men it implies these issues are somehow less important and ultimately alienates women activists from student politics.

As a result, I thought I’d never want to run in an election where I was challenged by voters - not for my politics - but because people think someone’s gender affects their ability. Fast forward to now and I’ve just been elected the first female president of my student union in 11 years.

So what's changing? Recently we’ve seen a growth in campaigns standing up to this, with an increase in fem-socs and anti-sexual harassment campaigns working to challenge gender based violence and empower women on campus. In 2013/14 for the first time, the NUS has established Women in Leadership as one of its priority campaigns. In Sheffield we’ve seen around 20 female students complete a structured, 10-hour programme called Women Leading the Way. This programme, and ones like it in SUs around the country are not just about giving women more skills but about recognising that there is a structural problem in our society.

The University of Sheffield itself is also working hard in this area and has won awards for its commitment to gender equality and career progression, establishing a thriving Women’s Network, mentoring programmes and groups tasked specifically with improving the representation of women at all levels, from undergraduate right up to professor level. But this is not common.

Many women students are unable to go on a night out without being sexually assaulted, let alone stand for a leadership position in their student union without being cat-called and undermined because of their gender. This continues in the workplace where on average women will earn 14.9 per cent less than a man for doing the same job according to the Fawcett society. These structures are reinforced by the fact that men outnumber women four to one in Parliament, meaning that decisions are being made that affect women, without women being there to contest them. To take an example, this means that men are choosing where austerity measures are being imposed, and as a result, roughly three quarters of cuts primarily affect women, according to House of Commons library, 2012.

The gender inequalities of the workplace and political system serves as an example for the rest of society, and the disparities seen in Parliament are reflected on university campuses across the nation, with 56.4 per cent of students in higher education being women, even though we make up only 38 per cent of student presidents.

However, the challenge is bigger than just the lack of women in leadership: we need to ask questions of the gendered nature of leadership. We need to challenge a masculine conception of leadership that puts the focus on one individual and often ends up reaffirming hierarchy and privilege. Women in leadership should not be about getting one more woman into a position of power, but rather about challenging the hyper-masculinity of our political discourse so that those who have historically been left out get a seat at the table.

The change we’re seeing at the moment is an opportunity to reimagine leadership - and we must take it. No longer relying on one person leading from the front, but rather empowering those who have traditionally been marginalised to stand up and have a voice. Student unions model possibilities for the future, and we can all learn from the type of changes being made.

Sheffield's student union is a place where we use quotas for women in elections, place liberation campaigning at the heart of our structure and prioritise breaking down access barriers for all students. As a result, more than half of the candidates in our last set of elections were women, compared with a historical average of 40 per cent.

So next time you issue a job advert and no women are being interviewed, think about why. If you’re running a speaker series, make sure 50 per cent of speakers are women. These may not be an ultimate solution but they are real changes that can make us think differently and drive us towards equality.

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