Gender politics

 
 

With the election of a second consecutive all-male SU sabbatical panel, Bridget Fitzsimons examines the role of women in UCD politics.

Times may be changing, but arguably not in UCD. For the second year in a row, students of the university have elected an all-male Students’ Union (SU). While it’s quite sustainable that the best contenders won; it’s still interesting to examine the severe lack of women even running for sabbatical positions in the first place and wonder why this is. Women make up over half of the undergraduate population of UCD, so why exactly are they grossly under-represented in the organisation that claims to represent the entirety of the student body?

Out of 14 candidates in this year’s elections, only two were female. To some people, the outgoing SU – also comprised of all men – had a negative effect on women who may have wished to run for a sabbatical position. Current SU Women’s Officer Isobel O’Connor certainly concurs. “This year I think was a knock-on effect from the fact that there were five male sabbatical officers and it’s the first year since I’ve been in university that SU council has been more male dominated.”

While O’Connor believes that while this was not the intention of the current SU, it is undoubtedly worrying to consider that trend possibly continuing into next year.

For lecturer in Women’s Studies, Ailbhe Smyth, trends in SU elections are “extremely disappointing”. An active campaigner against the Miss UCD pageant last year, Smyth feels that women are sorely misrepresented on the UCD campus. She believes that, “It’s deeply demeaning to simply portray them as objects of beautification. It’s quite unbelievable that in 2009 university students can consider this entertainment.”

“Women make up over half of the undergraduate population of UCD, so why exactly are they grossly under-represented in the organisation that claims to represent the entirety of the student body?”

The real problem is that the SU are supposed to represent the student population. When the SU is completely comprised of men for another year, it completely excludes women from the image of UCD students in a public sense. When the majority of the male hierarchy in both UCD and the SU are men, it presents an outdated and distorted image of a university that is supposed to be modernising in every sense of the word.

The most worrying fact seems to be the lack of participation in the SU due to the all-male sabbatical officers. O’Connor notes a significant drop in the amount of female class representatives this year. “I think the knock-on effect is that women didn’t feel as encouraged to run for class rep.”

In a world where many countries’ parliaments are male-dominated and women are constantly fighting for recognition in a political sense, should the SU not be doing all it can to promote a diverse mix of sabbatical officers?

Ailbhe Smyth believes that more needs to be done to this effect. “I think they need to have a forum to discuss the absence of women and not to say that it’s women’s fault but rather to say that ‘this is everybody’s responsibility, so what can we do to encourage women?’.”

“I think the knock-on effect is that women didn’t feel as encouraged to run for class rep”

O’Connor defends the SU on this level. “We ran a participation campaign to encourage people to run for Students’ Union officership… [the SU are] quite wary, myself and the other officers, to put across a balanced view as in previous years it would’ve been a lot of pictures of male politicians whereas this year we tried to get more of a balance between male and female politicians to see if that would carry through to a balanced proportion of people running for it.”

For Smyth, by contrast, radicalism must return to campus and women should make their voices heard. “Women on campus should protest vehemently against this symbolic objectification of women in a beauty pageant.” O’Connor agrees, saying that, “I think last year when we did run a Miss UCD competition having elected five male sabbatical officers it was kind of pushing women back down and saying that that’s where they belong.”

While one can argue that the best candidates were simply elected for the jobs they now have in the SU, it’s still striking that women are not better represented. As long as there are no female sabbatical officers and the SU are endorsing events like Miss UCD, a risk exists of female students in UCD becoming accustomed to being seen as simply beauty objects instead of budding politicians.

Smyth argues, “Women are in UCD as students, as academics, as workers in every field and reducing women to the level of objects to be gazed at on a catwalk in this way seems to me to be absolutely astounding”.

She also states that having an all-male SU “absolutely does not help to give a positive message to young women that young women are capable of decision making and leadership and have an absolute right to be involved in decision making and leadership.”

Women are every bit as much a part of UCD as men are. Perhaps it’s time for them to get involved and make their voices heard on the same level.

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