Why the SU Elections Require Serious Reflection | By Emerson Csorba

The February 15 SU executive elections deadline has passed, and though the turnout is decent, the list of potential executives is concerning. The names listed for the five executive positions are as follows: William, Kevin, Petros, Saadiq, Anthony, Dustin, Josh and Adam. Though many of these candidates are competent and will go on to serve as excellent executives, there is something missing. The flaw is obvious: there are no female candidates. For the fourth consecutive year, the Students’ Union executive will be all-male. In this article, I intend to outline my experiences both as a SU executive and as a former executive that has spent considerable time encouraging female candidates to run. Though my evidence is only anecdotal, it is clear to me that men and women approach executive elections differently. Moreover, I will argue that we must look further than the simplistic both men and women have the choice to run argument, which ignores some underlying problems in our Students’ Union.

Before I continue, it is important that I briefly describe the SU executive elections. For those that know little about the Students’ Union, or who are intensely skeptical, let me explain. Even as a former Students’ Union executive (Vice-President Academic, in 2011-2012), I see several flaws in the organization that merit attention. Much like any large-scale organization (the U of A SU represents over 33,000 undergraduate students, both domestic and international), bureaucratic procedures can limit creativity and progress. However, exploring the SU as a whole is not the intention of this article. Instead, readers should understand that the Students’ Union is a strong and effective organization made up of thousands of volunteers and hundreds of paid staff that keep the gears running, 365 days of the year. The Students’ Union advocates on local, provincial and national levels; it runs one of the most active buildings on campus; and it oversees over a dozen student faculty associations on campus, such as the Medical Students’ Association, Business Students’ Association and Education Students’ Association, whether they like it or not.

With these points in mind, serving as a Students’ Union executive is a daunting endeavour. Simply running in the February-March elections is a significant undertaking. My only mental breakdown in university took place following my VP Academic run in March 2010, and I ran unopposed. (Missing several consecutive weeks of class was bad…) If candidates are serious about winning, then they must skip two weeks of classes, with the entire reading break dedicated to elections preparation. Rather than attend classes, the best executive candidates are out shaking hands, working non-stop from 8 am until 6 pm, with various debates and meetings scheduled in-between.

And this only considers running for a position. For those that win, serving as a SU executive adds an entire year onto a student’s degree, and often dents one’s GPA. Simply put, serving as an executive is a full-time job. You spend upwards of 70 hours per week in the positions, and learn quickly that balancing work with social life and physical activity – not to mention family time – is a delicate act.

With this in mind, it is difficult to communicate my unhappiness regarding this year’s slate of SU executives. I cannot say, however, that I am surprised. During my four years on campus, potential male and female candidates have approached the elections in noticeably different ways. When I encourage men to run for an executive position, the response is much more open, in comparison to the responses of women that I nudge to run. Below, I describe my experiences encouraging both men and women to run; however, for now, it’s important to state that the Students’ Union needs to continue to actively attempt to understand why it is that we are entering a fourth consecutive year of an all-male executive. Every year, I hear my peers say that women have just as much of an opportunity to run, yet this sort of statement ignores the potential barriers that discourage women from putting their names forward.

*****

Over the last two years, while serving as VP Academic of the SU and now as an involved student with a healthy distance from student government, I’ve done my best to encourage female students to run in the SU elections. I found that during my first two years on campus, I would often encourage men to become involved in the Students’ Union, probably because I tended to spend time with my brothers in the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, an organization that has developed a reputation as a source of Students’ Union councillors and executives. Since then, I’ve learned that I must actively seek out female candidates that show promise as SU executives. Some of these women are in Students’ Council, some are in sororities, some are in student faculty associations and others are in various student clubs. During the last few months, I encouraged a handful of women to run in the SU elections, with all declining for a variety of reasons. I am certain that each of these women would have been outstanding executives, and that they were more than ready to take the plunge in tightly-contested elections.

However, what I have seen is that men and women approach SU elections in much different ways. When I ask women to run for SU executive positions, they are flattered, but do not see themselves as potential candidates (for the most part). Many of these women will say that they’re not preparedwhich is for the most part, wrong. In other cases, these women will say that they will run for their student faculty association executive, which are smaller-scale and less ambitious executive positions. In other cases, these potential executives will serve as campaign managers in the SU executive elections, which is a more behind-the-scenes role.

Conversely, when I ask men, I receive a much different response. Simply put, the wheels start turning in a man’s head. Even if the man with whom I am talking is much less qualified than the women that I have approached, he will actively consider the possibility of becoming an executive. Indeed, he might even begin to envision himself as the executive in question, much sooner than many of his female peers. Men are more open to taking the plunge. This observation seems to fall in line with a recent paper published by Richard Fox of New York’s Union College, entitled “Gender, Political Ambition and the Decision Not to Run for Office.” In this paper, Fox remarks that “By a margin of over 20 percent, women rate themselves less qualified than men to hold office.” Moreover, Fox notes in the conclusion that “we are a long way from a political reality in which women and men are equally likely to aspire to attain high-level elective office.” I strongly encourage you to read through this study, which takes only thirty minutes.

Based on my experiences, here are three recommendations to current and former active members of the Students’ Union, as well potential female candidates in SU executive elections:

1. To potential female candidates: do not sell yourselves short. Serving as a Students’ Union executive is a tremendous experience. Moreover, it is a challenge. How often does a twenty-something year-old get to oversee a ten million dollar organization, work with some brilliant political advisors, participate in interviews with the Edmonton JournalGlobe and CBC, develop and execute a list of goals, and develop an ease in navigating complexity, both within the university and on a variety of political levels? Serving as a campaign manager is nice and all, but it’s a cop-out. You get to help elect your friends, but you never experience serving as an executive first-hand. Moreover, becoming president of your student faculty association is a significant achievement, but there really is no comparison between serving as VP Finance of a $10,000,000 organization with a 300-person paid staff, or a $500,000 one. If someone is actively encouraging you to run for the executive, they’re doing so for a reason. If you genuinely believe that you’re cut out for the job, but really don’t want to run for whatever reason, that’s fine. However, you need to know that you do have what it takes to run the largest student association on campus.

2. To former SU executives and highly-involved student leaders: encourage female students to run for office. Too often, I see males encourage males to run. This perpetuates the idea of an “old boys club,” which could justifiably reflect the current (and two previous) Students’ Union executives, with no female in an executive role since the 2009-2010 year. In the same study highlighted above, Fox finds that “the gender gap in the interest in seeking elective office narrows substantially when a formal political actor offers the suggestion [to a female].” Thankfully, I know that there are former SU executives encouraging women to run; however, that is sometimes not enough. If you have served in a student leadership position, it is your duty to encourage other talented students to run, and there’s no question that many of those students should be women.

3. To everyone: talk about this issue. If we don’t view this as a problem, then what will prevent the next four years from following the same path? Near the tail end of my term as the VP Academic, the Students’ Union began to conduct research on female representation trends at student associations across the country. This is an admirable activity. Moreover, student organizations such as the Network of Empowered Women, founded by several University of Alberta students, is another example of moving this conversation forward. However, the gap has yet to be bridged. I see too many excellent candidates not putting their names forward, or only briefly consider the possibility before determining that they aren’t ready for the job.

*****

Without a doubt, simply running in the Students’ Union executive election is a huge undertaking. The year as an executive is equally challenging. However, this should not deter so many outstanding women from putting their names forward. I write this article not only because I’m concerned about the all-male executive to come in the SU, but due to the wider implications within our society. Research indicates that boards of directors with strong male and female representation are more effective than those with only males. Moreover, we should do whatever we can to ensure that everyone has equal opportunity to pursue their goals. We’re not there yet, but with the right approach, we can ensure that we slowly push the ball forward in seeing better female representation in our student government.

 With this said, I wonder what SU executive candidates think about the fourth year of an all-male executive. Is this acceptable? Or is this a cause for concern? If so, what do you intend to do to lead to positive change? 

 CC photograph courtesy of chrisinplymouth on Flickr.

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  • Ashlyn Bernier

    Thanks for this great article Emerson. As a female, and a GSA Executive (President, 2012/2013), I can say undoubtably that this experience has been incredibly rewarding professionally and personally. I have learned more this year than I could have in any internship or summer job. If any potential future female SU or GSA executives (or Councillors, etc.) would like to grab a coffee and discuss my experiences further, I would be happy to meet. Ashlyn@ualberta.ca

  • S

    So what are the barriers to entry then?

    • Sydney

      Willfully entering an arena in which you will likely face blatant sexism for the duration of your stay is probably the biggest barrier.

      • Really?

        I really don’t think women on campus have to worry about blatant sexism. We have a female President of the University and a student body that (while I can’t say for sure) is AT LEAST half female.

      • S

        Please provide support for this statement.

        • Really?

          I would ask you to support your assertion that rampant sexism exists.

          • Michael

            Listen, when someone asks you to cite your sources, CITE them. It’s not hard – even if you only learned your info second-hand, you can look it up.
            For instance, here’s a source identifying the (female) U of A president:
            http://www.president.ualberta.ca/en/PresidentsBiography.aspx
            And here’s one detailing the faculty gender breakdown from 2010 (hopefully still fairly representative).
            http://www.registrarsoffice.ualberta.ca/~/media/registrar/sosfiles/2010-2011/Graph62.pdf
            What you’ll find is that you’re correct, the totals are mostly female, and in particular faculties, such as Arts, Education, and Nursing (stereotypically feminine activities) an extreme female lead. You’ll also find, however, that men lead in Business, Law, Graduate Studies, and, most grossly, in Engineering.

            Just because there are more females at the U in total, and just because there is a female president, doesn’t mean that sexism isn’t a thing. You might split hairs over what constitutes “blatant” sexism, but gender preconceptions, and consequent discrimination, are nevertheless a thing.

          • Really?

            So, then just to confirm, you’re criticizing my invited opinions (which were factually correct) but not questioning the assertion of blatant sexism. That’s not exactly intellectually rigorous.

            As an aside, I was on my phone and otherwise indisposed.

            Also, in your statement, it seems that you imply that some pursuits are more worthwhile than others. That it’s somehow wrong there aren’t closer distributions in education vs law. It seems you’re resting on the same preconceptions you criticized.

        • Anon

          Information on our President can be found here: http://www.president.ualberta.ca/PresidentsBiography.aspx

          Information on our student body can be found here: http://www.ualberta.ca/~idosa/databook/2011-12/data_files/Table2_1_1_TeachFac2011decX.pdf

  • joe

    It’s notable to point out the make-up of the SU otherwise, is almost uniformly women. Staff, volunteers, even services staff. I don’t think you have a problem getting people involved, its a problem with the things you pointed out regarding the position itself.

    Hell. When I worked for the SU as a service director my job ended up being 70 hours a week, too. It was extremely rewarding but there was no possible way to balance the time and dedication ny service needed and the extra things the SU was asking me to do under the “other duties” section of my contract (things like going to a Myers Briggs session for the 40th time or I’d get fired). I didn’t burn out because I was uninvolved or didn’t care enough, the SU just asks too much of you, compensates you too little, and stifles any real direction that would make a person feel great about accomplishing something meaningful.

    So, stretch that into being an exec instead if the lowly director of ecos, peer support or safewalk. I can understand why most people would be put off of it. If the position can’t be completed be someone with a fulltime course load, it needs to be changed.
    It doesn’t exist to use students like batteries, until they’re burned out. It shouldn’t, at least.

  • Justin Bell

    I would disagree with Joe that executives need to be full-time students. While he makes some potentially good points about problems working at the SU (ones I can’t say are accurate without talking to more staff members), I think there needs to be more introspection happening at 2-900.

    As Emerson has pointed out, this will be four years of all-male executives. You have to go back to 2009-2010 since there was last a female executive, and even then it’s one or two out of six. Why is there such low turnout for female candidates? Why do they never make it into office? And is this even something the SU can do anything about?

    They are all questions that should be looked at by Students’ Council. There’s no way the SU should dictate how many female executives there are in any given year, but maybe there are ways to encourage more women to run. Maybe the workloads for executives are too high (an issue faced by both sexes). Maybe there’s nothing that can be done and we have to accept the status quo. But I, for one, would like to see this question examined by council.

    • joe

      Oh, I didn’t mean to imply they should be fulltime, just that the current position is unrealistic for most to do as a fulltime student and that’s an issue imo.

  • tmrsn

    Female leaders within the Students’ Union do not face blatant sexism. As previously noted, females make up the majority of the SU staff in full time and part time roles.

    What I find most disheartening is how short the list of candidates is, and I think this may be linked to the lack of diversity on the executive committee. Any diversity possible is stifled by the candidates themselves through an environment of intimidation. A lot of jockeying and positioning goes on before the nominations are due with some candidates even misleading other potential entrants to deter any great number of competitors. I find that qualified candidates, including female councilors and leaders from student organizations, are not willing to put up and be put through the mental games and bs associated with running for Exec. Whenever a qualified non-councilor runs, I find myself secretly cheering them on hoping they win to illustrate to the SU hackery how exclusionary their politics is.

    Leaders on campus need to run for positions if they feel the urge to run. Who gives a damn about who else is running. If you have a vision for the SU and the campus community, add your voice to the discussion on campus, female or not. I know there are a lot of qualified candidates out there, including females. The SU itself needs to do a better job of not bullying them away.

    • Anon

      Hear, hear!

  • Anon

    Emerson, I got an importantly different response from the potential female candidates that I spoke to, compared to those that you received: “Being an SU Executive wont help me do what I want to do.” Partially, I think this speaks to their incredible potential: that a director of an 11 million dollar advocacy organization is a downgrade in their minds. But moreover, I think it means the SU is continuing to lose relevance with students. They’re not doing things that many students want to have a say in, or at least they’re not communicating what they’re doing. And perhaps after three years with men in the drivers seat, they have built both an internal organizational culture, but also an offering of programming and services that aren’t inclusive for women.

    • Sydney

      This is really really well said, you should write.

    • Chloe

      Yeah, I agree.

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  • Brit

    I haven’t read the other comments, but it would be interesting to look at other SUs that have had many female execs. U of C, for example, had a female President for many, many years in a row (my entire 5 years of Undergrad).

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