Women underrepresented on student unions

The student body at MSVU is overwhelmingly female, but is led entirely by men. The situation is similar at Dal.

About three quarters of Mount Saint Vincent University students are women. (photo: Bhreagh MacDonald)

At Mount Saint Vincent University, a school where women make up roughly three quarters of the student population, all four of this year’s student union executives are men.

Jillian Mason ran for Vice-President of Student Advocacy at MSVU this school year against two men, but did not win the position. She says she was nervous to run against two men, and understands why other women might find it challenging to put their names forward.

“I think they’re nervous they’re going to lose,” says Mason. “It’s just the fact that if a male is running, there’s a greater chance of him winning.”

A study produced by StudentsNS, an alliance of post-secondary students in Nova Scotia, found women made up about 59 per cent of Nova Scotia’s university student body in the years between 2007 and 2012, but only 46 per cent of student government representatives.

MSVU is not the only school with a student government led by males. Men hold all five executive positions on Dalhousie University’s student union, and held all five positions last year.

President Sagar Jha is not OK with it.

“The movers and shakers on this campus are women,” Jha says. Women make up about 55 per cent of the student population at Dalhousie, and many lead student societies and start on-campus projects.

Student government elections are approaching at Nova Scotia universities, and Jha hopes these women will take top spots.

This year, the Dalhousie Student Union developed an equity and accessibility department staffed by two women that addresses oppression on Dalhousie campus, including sexism. Jha says they also keep close ties with South House, a Dalhousie organization that provides gender and sexuality-based resources.

However, he says a DSU executive without female representation is not ideal. “If women aren’t represented in the government, how can government make decisions that affect women?”

Sagar Jha is the president of the DSU, and works with four vice-presidents to lead the union. (Photo: Bhreagh MacDonald)

Upcoming student election season

Jha thinks there needs to be an adjustment in how they appeal to women to run for the spots.

“I think that the types of encouragement that we’ve seen in the past, that are simply poster campaigns giving statistics, are a lot less empowering,” says Jha.

As president, he says his approach is to individually encourage possible candidates with strong qualifications, both men and women, to run for presidential and vice-presidential positions.

At MSVU, Mason proposes that the student union could have a position reserved for a representative of the school’s Centre for Women in Business, assuring there will always be a woman’s voice.

“Women seem to be more nervous about putting themselves out there”

It does not bother Mason that her student union executive is all male, because she believes they are good at their jobs. As the only woman who ran in the position she was seeking, she’s just disappointed that “more girls don’t have the confidence to run.”

Meredith Ralston, who teaches the course Women and Politics at MSVU, thinks some women face challenges when participating in student politics because of internal barriers.

“You need to be a confident public speaker, and though this is a learned skill, women seem to be more nervous about putting themselves out there,” Ralston says.

Ralston also says women are more likely to be judged on their personal appearance and family status.

“One doesn’t have to go far in the Twitter (and) Internet universe to see outright misogyny against women who speak out,” she says.

Mason is not deterred from running again this winter for an executive position, and might if she can fit the job into her schedule.

“Just because there aren’t women on it this year doesn’t mean there has never been, and that there never will be again,” she says.



4 thoughts on “Women underrepresented on student unions

  1. Great story! It’s well known that this type of pattern exists in political arenas as well as at the executive level of most corporations, but it’s interesting to see that even progressive youth populations aren’t free from gender bias.

  2. This is just setting the stage for future gender inequality. It is not likely that a talented, hardworking female, who constantly runs for school committee positions and constantly loses, is going to keep up her confidence up to apply for the big positions at work a couple years later. Confidence is getting destroyed early. Not looking good for equality in the workplace down the line.

  3. What a great read! In my university, poster campaigns are sometimes the only contact the general student body has with the candidates for a given Student Union position. This is not conducive to making well informed voting decisions given our tendency to judge women on their appearance.

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