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This year, for the first time since 1990 when LUSU went from having a President and a Treasurer to having six Full Time Officers, all of the LUSU FTOs are male. Until 2009 one of these officers was a dedicated Women’s Officer, after which this and the Education & Welfare Officer became the VP (Equality, Welfare & Diversity) and the VP (Academic).
Some people will argue that it is a situation like this that highlights the necessity of a Vice President (Women) or a Women’s Officer in some form. My personal opinion is that creating a position that only a woman can hold does not do much for engagement of women throughout everything that LUSU does and smacks of tokenism. However, this does not negate the fact that in 2011, out of 16 candidates for FTO positions, only one was female and even then she was a candidate for VP (EWD), a role that is sometimes seen as traditionally a ‘woman’s role’. Had 6 men been elected out of a set of candidates containing more women, you could argue that the students voted for the people they thought would be best and those people happened to be men. However, the fact that only one woman ran is perhaps indicative of a problem.
Across all LUSU officer positions last year around half were women, including half of all college Presidents and Vice Presidents. This is where we should be in this day and age. However, this trend does not seem to apply to the Full Time Officer positions year after year. It must have been a long time since we had more than 2 female FTOs, if this has ever happened! This reflects a national problem with engaging women in democratic leadership positions; only 145 out of 650 MPs are female and so is by no means an issue unique to LUSU! However, we still must look at how we can, as a union, increase our accessibility to and our engagement with potential female candidates.
With this is mind, I asked Estelle Hart, National Full Time Women’s Officer at the National Union of Students, to come to Lancaster and provide a training session called “I WILL Lead The Way”. This training session was developed to try and combat the national issue of women not running for leadership positions within Students’ Unions. Discussions regarding barriers to women running, winning and campaigning advice was discussed and, although I couldn’t attend as I was male, the feedback I received was extremely encouraging. In my opinion, this is reflected in the candidacy for the current FTO elections as, at the time of writing, there are 8 female candidates out of a total of 23. Still not perfect, but a significant improvement on previous years.
Moving forward, I think it is important that we remain progressive with how we look at engagement of our membership, not just with women but with all groups of people whom previously have not engaged proportionally with LUSU democracy. Creating an officer for that group will only lump a huge and complicated issue on a single individual when robust engagement with all students should be a concern for all officers at LUSU. Looking at further training sessions to reach out to and empower ‘hard to reach’ demographics should definitely be at the top of the agenda. Also, with the new e-voting system we should now be able to gather information on what types of candidates are running for which positions, allowing us to see where more efforts need to be made to further access.
This year, the term “Gentlemen’s Club” has sometimes been thrown around with regard to me and the other 5 FTOs. Being a gay man from a working class area of north Manchester who went to a state school, this accusation did smart a little. However, that is not an impression that we as a students’ union can be giving out, incorrect or not. As time goes on we must engage a broader range of people with everything that we do or we risk becoming increasingly irrelevant. I would hope that the incoming FTO team, whoever they may be, is willing to champion diversity and I hope that the student body agrees that they should.