It’s the early afternoon on February 14, and tension is inevitably running high in the Mustang Lounge. After weeks of preparation, debating and endless amounts of campaigning, all three University Students’ Council presidential candidates find themselves at the end of their journey, anxiously anticipating the election results.
However, one candidate in particular, fourth-year social science student Ashley McGuire, found herself wondering if these results would determine a bigger change—the chance for another female to claim the USC’s highest elected office.
But that was not the case.
“I looked up at the screen and thought, ‘What happened? How did I only get 1,200 votes?,’” McGuire said, reminiscing about her confusion. The current senator-at-large explained she couldn’t help but think something was missing after she put so much of herself into her campaign.
“I obviously don’t have an answer for what it was that contributed to those results, and I’d like to think it wasn’t because of my gender, but I do think that gender will always play a role in these elections. I mean, there’s obviously a reason why men are winning more than women.”
And she’s right—men certainly have dominated this specific role since the creation of the USC. Over the past 50 elections, only 5 female candidates have earned the title of president, meaning 90 per cent of all winners have been male.
But after taking a closer look at the data, the reason behind this inequality may not be what first comes to mind. Students at Western don’t necessarily prefer to vote for male candidates, they just aren’t given as much opportunity to vote for females.
In the past 50 elections*, only 30 women have run for USC president, making up a measly 12 per cent of the total number of past candidates. However, 16 per cent of the women who have ran in the past have won, which isn’t too different from the men’s results, considering only 20 per cent of men who have run in the past have won.
Perhaps the question that needs to be asked is not, ‘Why are men elected more than women?’ but instead, ‘Why are so few women running for this position?’
Cristine de Clercy, a political science professor at Western, explained the answer could, in some ways, be related to tradition.
“I think there’s still an understanding in wider society and wider culture that politics, just as an area of interest or an activity, is normally more open and attractive to males than females,” she said. “I think that this has diminished over time, but there still is a sort of residual bias from an earlier time that politics is not normally an area of activity or interest for women.”
According to de Clercy, politics is part of what analysts call the public sphere—that’s life in the workplace, or life outside the home. For much of human history, men have been expected to be active in the public sphere, to be active in politics, but women, in contrast, were expected to concentrate mainly on the private sphere—the home.
“It was really only in the late 19th century and early 20th century when women began to demand the right to vote and to participate in politics, and began to enter and participate in the public sphere,” she said. “The route of inequality is simple centuries of tradition whereby women were viewed as being more properly oriented toward the family. These traditions could still be contributing to the lack of females interested in politics of any level.”
But de Clercy also explained tradition might not be the only thing contributing to gender inequality in politics. In some cases, she believes women could face different barriers than men do.
“When we look at what sorts of barriers exist to women in ordinary politics, such as provincial or municipal government, they often face many of the same kinds of barriers regardless of what sort of office they’re running for,” she said. “One example is there are often networking barriers, meaning the sorts of groups women belong to may not give them as much profile as the sorts of groups that men belong to.”
Another barrier de Clercy mentioned was how females can be portrayed, as women routinely report they find it’s tougher to be viewed as being as competent as their male counterparts.
“For whatever reason, there does tend to be some sort of residual suspicion that women in leadership roles are not as competent as their male counterparts. Often [women] then go on to prove that that is absolutely not the case, but there is a fair amount of evidence that female candidates at least think they’re held to a different standard.”
Even after earning the role of USC president for the 2009–10 academic term, Emily Rowe experienced these barriers first-hand, as she felt as though students and other faculty members doubted her ability solely based on her gender.
“I noticed it even more than I was expecting,” Rowe said. “It was quite upsetting how many people would pass judgment just because I was a blonde female.”
Things didn’t get easier when Rowe finally had the position either.
“I guess what bothered me was every president does things that people don’t agree with, but when I did something that someone didn’t agree with, it was more often than not unofficially traced back to my gender.”
McGuire also faced some of these challenges while campaigning.
“Now that I’ve been through that experience, I can say that it’s probably very different for a girl to go through the process than a guy, especially when it comes to the debates,” McGuire said. “It even just comes down to my voice—when I answered a question, it was different than say when Pat or Vivek answered a question.”
“The can just say what they want to say and it comes across as confident—it won’t sound cocky. If I answered it in the same way, with the same amount of confidence, it would more likely be portrayed completely different.”
Facing barriers like these is something current USC President Adam Fearnall explained the USC has tried to face, but he explained it could be difficult to pinpoint exactly where the problems lie.
“As I’ve come through the USC, I’ve realized how progressive of a bubble it really can be, and when you sort of step outside and take a look at where the rest of the campus is at, you think, ‘Okay, there’s still a lot of work to do here,’” he said. “We’re exposed to all of the services the USC’s Peer Support Centre offers, so the way our mindset has been established really gives us a totally different perspective about where we’re actually at, and as an organization it can be difficult to see outside that sometimes.”
However, he doesn’t believe the barriers always focus on gender specifically.
“I wouldn’t necessarily boil it down to gender, but there is often a certain expectation of who leaders are going to be, or what specific mould they should fill,” he explained. “Whether or not that breaks down along gender lines, I’m not sure, but I think that it’s something that we as a campus, as a society, don’t always take into consideration, that there’s different ways of leading.”
“If there’s a barrier at all that I’ve seen, it’s that there isn’t recognition of the different styles of leadership, and people don’t always value different approaches.”
Even though students at Western may not have agreed with McGuire’s leadership style, she explained she wishes she could do it all over again because of the great experience it was. She hopes other female students will follow in her footsteps, and use the statistics as fuel for motivation.
“If you really, really want something, and you’re willing to put your entire heart and soul into it, do it—don’t let the statistics intimidate you or hold you back,” she said. “If you are interested in running, and you are someone who wants to change Western for students, you shouldn’t let anyone stop you, regardless if you’re male or female.”
* Candidate data from 1964–1969, 1975/76 was unavailable.