We need sabbatical elections to become more representative

A race of ten men should point to the need for more action for equality

Photo by Joe McCallion

Since the announcement of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) sabbatical officer candidates weeks ago, the issue of women in leadership has been discussed intensively in the press, amongst friends, and teased out in meeting rooms. If this feels repetitive, it is because this is an issue that is not going away, and therefore demands to be considered critically and deeply.

The dearth of women in leadership has haunted me (and other women on campus I’m sure) over the last few weeks, and is likely to haunt me for much of my life as women consider to be underrepresented outside of Trinity’s walls. Only two of this year’s candidates were women, and once again we had an all-male Presidential race.

As one recently published article in this paper put it, “it seems for a woman to become the TCDSU president she must be truly exceptional”. A more apt sentiment is that of Jane Ohlmeyer: it seems that men only have to be mediocre to outperform exceptional women.

Any analysis of the issue of women in leadership demands that we answer the question: why is diversity in leadership important in the first place? Does this matter on any sort of level that goes beyond mere ‘‘girl power” sentiments? Well, yes, of course it does. A lack of women in leadership positions, and more broadly (but very importantly), any sort of diversity in leadership roles, means that well over half of the student population is not being accurately represented in the Students’ Union.

When the core group of policy makers are white men, the issues and reforms that they make are most likely to be those considered important by white men. A leader should, and often does, do their utmost to try and accurately represent all members of their population, but it is unlikely that a man will enact policies and represent students with the female experience in mind.

This applies to all demographics of student life. It’s why we should hope that students running for election come from a range of disciplines and not just out of the Arts Building – that international students, mature students, students with disabilities, and ethnic minorities are represented. Although the part-time officer system in the SU plays a role in making sure these voices are heard, we should hope for a better representation among the sabbatical officers, considering these are the policy makers who will be dedicating an entire year to the running of the Union and its campaigns.

So why wouldn’t women want to run for election? There is a slew of systemic issues that feed into this problem. Girls are generally socialised from a young age to be less ambitious than their male peers. Our society is one in which hierarchical power structures are generally driven by men; ergo, we often unintentionally conceive of power as a male characteristic and phenomenon.

Women generally grow up encountering a host of microaggressions and social encounters on a daily basis that subtly reinforce our current position in society. From having parents’ friends comment on how “pretty” we are as children, to being called a know-it-all for putting our hands up in school, to being talked over by male peers in college seminar groups, the everyday experiences of women tend to undermine any belief that we can, and should, be heard and taken seriously.

The lack of representation this year is particularly disappointing because of the point in time at which it comes. Feminism and women’s issues have been in the news consistently in the last twelve months, and there is a tangible sense that some sort of power shift is taking place. Whether or not this shift is benefiting anyone beyond white, middle class women is a knotty issue that demands a separate article unto itself.

We are on the cusp of a referendum on the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, and the Weinstein accusations, and subsequent #MeToo movement, has led to a heightened awareness of the degree of sexual harassment and abuse carried out by men in positions of power. Yet with a new place in the spotlight comes a new upsurge in anti-feminist sentiments. This is a pattern historically, especially with social movements such as women’s suffrage that demand a power shift from oppressed groups.

With bigger shifts comes subsequent greater fear and vitriol. One only has to take a glance at the comments section of any article related to sexual harassment and other feminist issues to understand the point (including those published by college publications – indeed, possibly even including this one).

In a sense, that’s both unsurprising and shouldn’t be a problem – movements will always have their detractors. Yet the tone and aggression of these voices are unlikely to make any woman want to put herself forward, especially the year after a visible Repeal campaign within college has gained considerable scrutiny and criticism from students.

Which segues into the broader issues of SU engagement. Part of the problem with this year’s candidates is that there aren’t enough of them to be representative. Two positions were uncontested, while the editorial race could only be tenuously described as contested by joke candidate Michael McDermott. It’s absolutely true to say that students are not being offered a real range of candidates, something that is likely to only further alienate those already disengaged from the Union.

However, who is to blame for this? Well, already we’ve seen commentators blaming “the TCDSU”. This brings us back to the fundamental issue of the Union though, which is that it consists of, and ought to be driven by, far more than the few sabbatical officers who sit in House 6, or even the officers and convenors who are possibly the most engaged members of the Union.

Call me a bleeding heart optimist – or a hack – but in order to see a greater diversity of candidates we need a cultural and community shift that encourages greater engagement with the Union.

The SU is a widely critiqued body within campus. That should not change – when a portion of students’ capitation fees go to the Union, we deserve to see that officers are being held to account, and furthermore students deserve a chance to voice their opinions. However, there is a fine line between holding officers accountable and setting them up to fail.

Student media plays a part in how sabbatical roles, and the Union, are perceived. We see consistent critiques of the SU and its officers in both of our student papers, be it in comment pieces, editorials, or simply the subtly indicting ways in which news is reported.

Yes, opinions do deserve to be aired, and heard. However, many students will encounter the Union most directly through student media, just as today we encounter governmental policies and decisions most directly through national media. Journalists shape the ways these stories are presented to students, yet often it seems as if little consideration has been given to this fact.

This ostensibly has little to do with representation, yet the student media shapes the views and opinions of the college community. Personally, I have heard from potential candidates who decided not to run due to fear of the inevitable media scrutiny, and surely there are countless others who have thought the same thing.

When faced with potential criticism and attacks, it is generally those who are the most confident, those who have been raised to believe that they are capable and deserving of leadership, namely, those who are the most privileged, who will put themselves forward.

 Although criticism should and will always have its place in our community, by pushing it past the line of being constructive or well-intentioned, we have lost a potentially more diverse range of candidates. This is not to say this is solely the media’s fault or problem – rather, the media is contributing to this.

Problems with student community engagement within the SU need to be addressed. I am personally baffled watching candidates being grilled due to their “lack of experience” in the Union after carrying out terms as class reps. If we are to truly understand the Union as a body as being one that is representative of all students, and one in which all students can and should get involved, we need to understand Union engagement in broader terms than just being a School Convenor or Part-Time Officer.

A candidate should require no more than a thorough understanding of how the Union works to decide to run. True, this is probably helped by some sort of engagement with the structures of the Union, but we ought to stop considering the role to a sabbatical position as a greasy pole.

The move from class rep to PTO to Sabbat is not and should not be the only entry route into a sabbatical position. If we as a community keep on anticipating this pathway, we only encourage the sort of clique-y “hack” culture that we love to cynically critique.

Personally (and I say this acknowledging that I am a very engaged member of the SU) I would suggest that if there is one singular criticism that the Union deserves, it is the very presence of these hierarchies. Student voices should be equally listened to, and the officer roles in the Union (including that of the President) are there only to listen and facilitate the demands of the students.

No one should feel that they’re not “in”enough with the Union to get involved in an issue or campaign that they are passionate about, or to suggest that a change is needed in college life.

We need to see a dissolution of “hack culture” as we know it, a culture that encourages cliques and careerism within the Union. If there is a continued disengagement and alienation from the SU, we are unlikely to see women or other underrepresented groups feel brave enough to try and put themselves forward for election.

How can one go about this? On an individual level, we can do this by continuing to engage and critique in order to improve, and by actively encouraging our peers to go forward for election. If I have any regrets from the last year it is that I utterly failed to actively seek out and encourage my peers to run for election.

It was easier to sit around, keep an ear to the ground, and cross my fingers, hoping that women would decide to run. That did not work. If we want better representation, we need to encourage women to partake, and do so persistently.

There will always be reasons that go beyond gender, race, class or ability that will make people decide whether or not they want to work for the Union for a year. However, if this year ten men decided that they were up for it, surely there are ten women out there who just need a little push to convince them.

Maybe it is time for the Union to integrate this into an official nominations committee or other such structure, or maybe it is simply a policy that must be enacted through our everyday social encounters.

If we are concerned about a lack of diversity in our Union leadership, and if we are truly to demand better representation, we have to make some sort of serious and concerted effort. Although they may have their place, we must take action that goes beyond panel discussions, photo campaigns and empowerment discussions.