Barriers to Running: It’s Not a “Women’s Issue” | By Navneet Khinda

To say it bluntly, I loved several aspects of this piece, but it also raised in me a deep sense of ire.

First, I love it. The sentiment behind the article is that not enough women are running in Students’ Union Executive elections and that more should. And in order to get more to run, we collectively, especially those already in power, should encourage women to contest these positions.

But that’s where my agreement ends.

I’m going to rebut this article and in doing so I can only speak on my behalf or from anecdotal evidence from my life, just as Csorba used anecdotal evidence for his. I won’t mention any names because I’m very involved with elections this year, so please bear with me.

Csorba notes that “for the fourth consecutive year, the Students’ Union executive will be all-male”.  No disagreement here – it’s obvious. But what’s not as obvious is what is even more important to consider.

Forget that these candidates are male. What else do they all have in common? Well there are eight candidates. Five of them, as far as I know, are in a fraternity.

I’m not involved with the Greek community, but from an outsider’s perspective (and insider’s perspective from the SU) I know for a fact that being a Greek guarantees you a competitive edge in SU elections.

Secondly, at least two candidates have strong ties to the residence communities, primarily Lister.

Third, they are all popular in their own ways and have years of experience with other leadership positions.

Finally, and most significantly, three candidates are incumbents and one of them ran last year and lost. This means they have a competitive edge. They are well known and as Csorba mentioned, they do not have to bear the burden of missing weeks of classes and balancing the ensuing stress.

All of these are clearly assets for the candidates, but they can also be seen as flaws in the system.


The System

I don’t think the level of sexism we face in the campus community is anything like that faced in the “real” world and in elections on a bigger scale. I do not wish to negate the challenges women specifically face, and clearly anyone who knows me knows that this is an area of personal concern. However, I do encourage people to look beyond what is easily seen (gender) and look at what other factors may be at play.

One serious failing, even more crucial than having no gender diversity in our Executive, is the culture that I’ve seen growing in the SU. From first-hand experience I have had conversations with a number of people, candidates past and present, who want to run uncontested. They want it to be a sure thing and if it is not so, then they won’t run. There are also great candidates who actually push to have more competition, but the point I’m making here is that perhaps it is the great advantage of incumbency that we are over-looking.

Clearly both men and women have the option of running. But this crop of male candidates isn’t just comprised of the “average guy” at school. They have an incredible amount of talent, experience, and political capital. Now with all this information in mind, ask yourself, would you want to run?

I do not doubt that women may take a different approach when encouraged to run in elections. Many of the things Csorba mentioned, such as being flattered and saying they’re unprepared at the time, may stand true. However I think he’s missing something.

Maybe by starting this discussion with a male-female dichotomy, the idea that women face specific barriers is being perpetuated before we actually get to finding out what those limitations may be – just food for thought.

What hasn’t been discussed is the fact that the majority of our executives, time and time again, are from either the Greek or Residence communities, or both! There is nothing explicitly wrong with this, and I understand why it happens (both groups are immensely involved with University life so it only makes sense that they transition into positions of power) but there is an issue, then, that is being overlooked. Because these communities only constitute a fraction of the undergraduate population at the UofA, I do think it is fair to say that they bring a distinct flavour to our governance structure. What I’m trying to emphasize here is that the candidates running have systems of social support in place, which the “average” student may not.


Making a calculated decision

Would I want to run? Yes. But not right now. Incumbents have had at least a year to think about their platforms. I don’t want to run just so I can fill some quota of how many female candidates there should be – I would want to run if and only if I knew I was ready to do so.

Therefore, my decision was made by rationally analyzing the costs and benefits of such an endeavor. Students have to take into account grades, what to do post-graduation, their jobs, other volunteer commitments, family commitments, and personal goals (like training for a sporting event).

Elections happen every year at the exact same time so this allows potential candidates to really plan out what they want. There are two tradeoffs I like to consider. First, how much I value my personal life and other ambitions over running in an election. What disruptions will this have on goals and commitments that I already have? Second, I compare who I am now to who I will be. I know that with time I can be a better candidate and therefore serve the students that much better.

I don’t think it’s harder for women to run but just hard for all students. It might be more difficult for students who do have good ideas, but aren’t popular, aren’t involved in the Greek system, or don’t live in residence since that is the culture that has dominated thus far.

Students’ time is a valuable commodity. Perhaps if they do not want to spend it volunteering or working for the SU, this might signal that the institution has to do a better job articulating why governance is important!

So with that, I’d say that I did not run this year not because of barriers I face as a woman, but because of barriers many students face, regardless of gender. 

Csorba is right, we do have to “look further than the simplistic both men and women have the choice to run argument, which ignores some underlying problems in our Students’ Union”. Yet none of these underlying problems have been explicitly stated.

Maybe because there aren’t as many as we think there are.

Or maybe they’re problems that cannot be addressed solely by the Students’ Union. Perhaps they stem from society as a whole.

In the paper by Fox, the reference is made to “high-level elective office”. Student office is not high-level. Also many women aren’t in the same situation as women contesting positions in provincial or federal politics. We’re younger, don’t have families, don’t have careers or other financial obligations, therefore many of those barriers that are in place at the higher level do not pertain to women in student elections.

Do you think there are barriers in place specific to women that inhibit them from contesting SU elections? What kind of culture do you think is fostered by the SU? What have your experiences been like?


Navneet is currently serving her second term on the SU Council as an Arts representative.


Image adapted from BBC  

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  • ashley

    Sure, maybe YOU didn’t run because of potential barriers you face as a woman, but this story isn’t about you or about specific, individual cases. It is about looking at the bigger picture. You make some valid points, but you are not taking into consideration that women do play significant roles in the university community in the very same ways that you cite (sororities, RMs, etc).

  • Rodrigo S

    I think this is an issue less with causation, and more with correlation. While UofA does not boast the greatest voting record during elections, I think its safe to say that the vast majority of votes do not come out of Greeks. However, there is a strong point with the Residence/Lister (that is a major source of exposure). Though I am confident there are many SU exec not from Lister.
    I think that there is a point that was missed: The “sort” of people who are involved in Lister and Greeks just happen to be the “sort” of people, who are active in campus life, and therefore more likely/inclined to run for exec and get involved in SU.

    So its not that Lister & Greek ’cause’ you per say, to win the SU election. I think its just a correlation.

    Furthermore, Greek/Lister life take alot of “out of school” time – so the fact that you may have to work harder/skip class because of the supposed “lack of popularity” during elections, I think it nets out eventually.

    SU exec/election is a demanding process & job- I don’t think thats escapable :p

  • Allyson

    Very interesting perspective, Nav. So much of what as written in both your article and Emerson’s resonates with me. I feel that combined, they offer a very important critique of our Students’ Union and it’s ability to encourage student leaders to fulfill executive roles. I was genuinely more disheartened by the lack of candidates in this election than I was by the lack of female names on the ballot.

    I believe you phrased it exceptionally well when you wrote “I’d say that I did not run this year not because of barriers I face as a woman, but because of barriers many students face, regardless of gender.” The decision to run as an SU executive is one that I have also considered, but ultimately did not feel entirely confident pursuing. As Emerson notes, becoming an SU Executive is very rewarding and offers one a very unique leadership experience. It is inciting to run, especially when you have so much innovation to offer the student body. However, the campaigning experience requires one to make a great self-sacrifice and temporarily cease one’s academic and personal ambitions. It’s just not possible for me, given my current responsibilities as a SU Service Director and Departmental Association Exec. I’ve grown so passionate about what I’ve already involved myself in to quit and pursue another goal. Furthermore, I honor myself as a human being with limitations on what I can reasonably achieve – rather than a woman discouraged and intimidated by the SU.

    Overall, I’m glad to know so many influential female leaders within the University community and in the greater Edmonton area. I’m proud to contribute to the U of A community in the capacity I’ve chosen. Finally, I feel lucky that as a self-identifying woman, I’ve been able to develop many transferable skills, grow as a person and create a network of wonderful colleagues within the SU.

  • OS

    So, why is women’s issues in quotation marks?

  • Jenn

    I agree with this article more than I agree with Emerson’s. The barriers to run are not limited to gender alone. I graduated from Nursing in December 2010, and for me the limitations to running in an SU election stemmed more from the limitations my faculty had (e.g-mandatory class attendance) than from not feeling prepared or qualified for a position within the SU exec (reasons which Csorba says the women he’s encountered have stated). In addition, I had actually considered running for an SU Exec position and taking a year off of official nursing classes, however I felt that my goals and ambitions were met within the endeavors I was already a part of, and I didn’t want to abandon my positions within those groups. My talents and knowledge were better suited within my own profession, and I don’t regret that decision one bit. It has taken me further than a position within the SU Exec would have, in my opinion.

    These reasons are not because I’m a female. It’s because I carefully weighed my options, and ultimately decided on an alternate path than the SU. There are a lot of students who do the same, regardless of gender.

  • Eric Grehan

    I’m a bit confused by your statement that “I don’t think the level of sexism we face in the campus community is anything like that faced in the “real” world and in elections on a bigger scale” and how that works with your diagnosis of a problematic culture that is growing in the SU.

    The SU is interesting for me because it is a microcosm where the cultural ideologies of society get implemented and enforced on the ground level….the other factors you identity as influential in an election- being in a fraternity, being engaged in the residence community, etc. – are those not influenced by factors like race, class, and sex?

    The lack of diversity in the elections is a women’s issue. it’s also a race issue, a colonial issue, a class issue, an ability issue. I think a critique of the SU election that incorporates all these factors is possible.

    Thanks to you and Emerson for bringing up this important topic.

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