Regarding Representation – Student Politics Under the Microscope

Another year, another referendum, another excuse for a debate. This one, held by the Phil, discussed the possibility of an SU disaffiliation from the USI. Criticisms were levelled, personal insults were thrown, and Trinity students were labelled elitist snobs. All issues were raised, bar one. Where were all the girls?

Outside of the college environment, one of the reasons commonly given for a deficiency of females in high profile roles is their childcare needs. Today some women choose caring for their family over advancement in the workplace, but in the past this was the least of their problems. Up until recently many women lacked a decent education. And if they choose to marry, legislation barred them from staying on their career path.

In 2012, it is to be expected that a modern university environment, such as Trinity, exists removed from these past and current problems. Campus boasts a young and intelligent student population, a huge amount of diversity, and an atmosphere where the vast majority of students don’t have children to worry about. However, proposing, opposing, and calmly presiding, the student politicos spoke, and not one of them was female. But is this just an isolated example, or is it merely a symptom of a more complicated problem? Are female students engaging or being represented at all in the Trinity system?

A simple glance around at some of the biggest influencers on campus would suggest that they’re not. Last year, just 13% of the top-three leadership positions in the five biggest societies were held by girls. This year little has changed. From the big societies – the auditors of the Phil and the Hist, president of St. Vincent De Paul, the chair of Players, to those charged more with general representation such as the president of the TCD SU, president of the Graduate Students’ Union, and our national USI president, not one is female.

Hist auditor John Engle recognises the deficit. “It is sort of a surprising phenomenon that still occurs that a significant majority of auditors and treasurers of societies in college are male… This is my fifth year in Trinity and I don’t remember ever seeing a female candidate for SU president, and I’ve rarely seen Hist auditorial candidates. This last year was actually the first time where two of the three candidates were women. But I mean I think it is part of the culture and the ways the institutions are formed.”

USI president John Logue agrees. “It’s been there for years and campaigns so far just haven’t quite got to the nub of the issue yet… there’s a massive gap there between the women who feel that they are capable of going for this and the guys that feel they are capable. And there’s no actual gulf between their talent, it’s just a perception issue.”

Because there is no question that any individual candidate has been unfairly elected, or even that there is necessarily an issue with the system, the statistics can be difficult to reconcile with personal experiences of the elections. TCDSU president Rory Dunne echoes a common refrain; “It’s just the way it happened in the elections.” However, when faced with the fact that his position has been male-only for the last nine years, he does admit that while there’s no tangible reason for this, there is possibly some sort of psychological barrier stopping women from getting involved.

Nevertheless, he doesn’t agree with just getting women involved for the sake of it. “I wouldn’t say it would be a necessity. It would certainly be nice to see more involvement by women, but I wouldn’t feel that I would necessarily have to go above and beyond. To do these jobs in particular the desire to do it should arise from within. You should feel like you want to go for it, you want to do it, and for good reasons as well. The electorate in Trinity, certainly from a student union level we would see as making good, sensible decisions, and we would respect it, so the issue of women’s involvement really just stems from engagement at that first level, that first step, and if that’s really where it is I would be delighted to encourage women to run”

Engle agrees that desire to do these jobs is really essential. “I think that there’s no block once they make the decision to get involved, I think the problem is whatever is causing women not to want to make the step to get involved in the first place. And I don’t think that’s the institutions in that regard that’s doing that, I think it’s sort of a cultural tradition that’s of somewhat being in a more deferential position. And it’s not a good thing, but I’d say that when women do get involved they do just as well.”

Logue says the tendency so far is for female contenders to avoid what are arguably the more influential roles. “We have a lot of women around the country who are in welfare roles but as to the roles that are considered more policy driven – the education officers, the president – it’s just I think we need that critical mass.”

Not having a gender balance on a political level raises the question of the adequacy of representation. Engle vocalises this; “I think when you have a representative democracy you need to be able to assume that the representative that you elect to represent your constituency is able to represent everyone’s interests.” This does not necessarily mean that your representatives must be the same as you, as long as they are aware of any deviation of your preferences from theirs. The question then is whether male leaders are aware that they need to be conscious of a deficit here.

After initially stating that he couldn’t see a problem in the current climate, Phil auditor Lorcan Clarke admitted that he found it difficult to conceive of a campus where the vast majority of all positions were held by women. “It’s hard to imagine what it would be like. I guess I’d think it was strange but if it was fair I wouldn’t have an issue with it. But yes, it definitely would make me ask those questions as to why there weren’t more men. Do men not want to run for things? It would definitely make me ask the questions that I guess women ask at the moment. It’s hard to say how that would affect you in terms of even not being represented at that level, how would that actually affect your ambitions.”

Originally published in the University Times, on 23rd October, 2012

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