2016-17 SSMU executive team.
2016-17 SSMU executive team.

News | Female SSMU executives decry tone-policing in student politics

Women held to a “higher standard of diplomacy” than men

Out of the ten students who ran for election to the SSMU executive for the 2016-17 year, only one candidate, Elaine Patterson, is a woman. Patterson, who beat her opponent Dushan Tripp by a margin of 1,258 votes for the role of VP Student Life in March, will be the only woman on next year’s executive.

According to Fall 2015 enrolment rates, women make up 56.8 per cent of the McGill student body. Historically, the number of women on the SSMU executive has rarely reflected the composition of the student body. In the current year’s executive, there is gender parity, but next year Patterson will be one woman among six men, five of whom are white.

“Bossy” and “bitchy” women in politics

“When I found out that I was going to be the only female-identified person running, I was kind of taken aback,” Patterson told The Daily. “It’s remarkable that there is only one woman on this executive team.”

“At the debates it was brought up […] three times that I was the only woman who was running for these positions,” she said. “That’s kind of when it hit me more, that, wow, I’m really determined to be successful in this election because not only do I think that I do have the qualifications to be in this position, but I do think that it would be really horrible to have an executive made up of entirely seven men.”

Asked why she thought so few women ran in elections, Patterson cited the “harmful” personal attacks launched against candidates Céleste Pagniello and Alexei Simakov during the by-election for VP Internal in November.

“Putting yourself on a very public pedestal when you’re running for these elections can be kind of scary.”

“It’s no secret that SSMU elections have been tumultuous in the past,” Patterson explained. “Putting yourself on a very public pedestal when you’re running for these elections can be kind of scary.”

“I think that women who pursue leadership positions have been, and still are, labelled as being ‘bossy’ in the workplace, or hear things like ‘she’s such a bitch because she told me to do this,’” continued Patterson. “That kind of language and that kind of attitude might be a reason why women aren’t really interested in putting themselves out there to run for these leadership positions.”

Emily Boytinck, the current VP External, said in an interview that she “can’t imagine what it’s going to be like for [Elaine] next year.”

“She’s going to be held to a higher standard of diplomacy than anyone else. If she responds to an aggressive email in an aggressive way, then it’ll escalate rather than the club being like ‘Oh, she’s right,’” said Boytinck.

“Politics do not bode well for women with opinions”

Boytinck explained that one of the most significant challenges she faced as a SSMU executive was tone-policing from others, as well as an internalized form of “self-censoring.”

Boytinck continued, “I’ve felt a strong need to self-censor a bit, to use arguments that I think will make me sound cool and logical – basically doing everything in my power to not be stereotyped as a rad, passionate woman, even though in many ways that’s who I am. […] Sometimes I do leave feeling like no matter what I could have said, men in the room wouldn’t take me seriously,” Boytinck continued. “Politics do not bode well for women with opinions.”

She also said she has “noticed that over the years, women [on the executive] tend to leave the SSMU feeling just exasperated, totally overwhelmed, shut down, or angry.”

She added that, as a white woman, the tone-policing and self-censorship that she experiences is less severe than that faced by women of colour, or other marginalized identities. “Maybe that’s why there are so few women of colour who run for SSMU,” she suggested.

Asked if she has experienced tone-policing as a female executive, VP University Affairs Chloe Rourke said she “absolutely” had. However, she added that she was very hesitant to call out observed or experienced instances of sexism because she felt that the burden of proof is placed impossibly high. “My personal interpretation of the experience is often immediately viewed as biased and thus untrustworthy due to my identity as a woman,” she continued.

“My personal interpretation of the experience is often immediately viewed as biased and thus untrustworthy due to my identity as a woman.”

Rourke added that many spaces within student politics, like meetings with the administration, Senate, and Legislative Council, “reject feminine qualities.”

“Emotion and sensitivity are viewed as weakness, or that they somehow render individuals incapable of rational thought,” explained Rourke.

Student media has also been complicit in tone-policing of student executives. For example, in 2010, the McGill Tribune editorial board endorsed Sarah Woolf for SSMU President, but noted that they were “concerned, however, about Woolf’s ability to control her emotions when she becomes passionate about an issue,” and called on Woolf to “employ more diplomacy and tact if she is elected.”

Patterson also expressed apprehension about being heard and taken seriously in her work next year. “My voice is very light and airy sometimes, and I feel like people don’t necessarily hear me when I am trying to interject,” she commented. “I think that next year I would have no problem raising my voice or, if necessary, taking on a masculine tone in order to get a point across. But I say that and it makes me cringe; it kind of makes my heart break. If that’s the way I’ll need to be heard, then are we really progressing?”

Facing constant scrutiny and unreasonably high standards can take a toll on the mental health of student politicians, as well as their ability to perform their duties. “I’m exhausted from feeling that I have to be extra competent, extra careful in how I am presenting myself, and work extra hard to be treated with the legitimacy and respect of a man,” said Rourke.

“If that’s the way I’ll need to be heard, then are we really progressing?”

The Daily reached out to 2014-15 VP External Amina Moustaqim-Barrette and President Courtney Ayukawa in an attempt to include perspectives from women of colour. Both cited their difficult experiences within SSMU as reason for declining to be interviewed.

In an email to The Daily, Ayukawa said, “My term as SSMU President last year was incredibly stressful and unhealthy (both physically and mentally). Notably, one of the reasons why I initially ran for the position in 2015 was the fact that all of the other 3 candidates for President were men and and only 1 of the 3 was a person of colour.”

Not enough women at the table

Boytinck also spoke about how the underrepresentation of women extended beyond SSMU into provincial student politics. “At the last UEQ [Union étudiante du Québec] meeting I went to, there were 28 men and 8 women. Furthermore, of the people who did speak, even in delegations where there was a woman, it was the man speaking – even if the woman was the VP External,” she said.

Since 2006, only six non-male candidates have run for the role of SSMU VP External, within a pool of 19 candidates. Out of the past eleven VP Finance & Operations executives, ten have been men.

“SSMU does give you a really big voice to speak to important things that are happening on campus and elsewhere, and if women aren’t stepping up, then women’s voices just won’t be heard in those spaces, and that’s a really big issue,” said Boytinck.

Rourke, however, said that she doesn’t believe SSMU has a chronic underrepresentation of women. “In general, I believe that SSMU executives have historically been quite diverse, at least in comparison to other universities,” she argued.

“I’m proud because I’m glad that there is at least some kind of representation, but I’m disappointed because I will not be able to represent various different intersectionalities of women.”

Since 2006, there have been 26 SSMU Presidential candidates, only 6 of whom were non-male. Of the 11 Presidents elected, just 3 were not men. The first female president was elected in 1965, and in 2011 The Daily reported that in over 100 years of the students’ society, only nine of our presidents have been women.

Patterson said that she was both “proud and disappointed” to be the only woman on next year’s executive. “I’m proud because I’m glad that there is at least some kind of representation, but I’m disappointed because I will not be able to represent various different intersectionalities of women,” she elaborated. “I am a straight, white, cis woman, and that comes with an incredible set of privileges that I am aware of.”

Patterson added that next year she hoped to “hire as diverse a team of student staff to work for [her] portfolio as possible” to rectify the homogeneity of the current executive.

Rourke similarly noted that “having females in positions of power also does not guarantee that issues of all women are heard or even that women’s issues are heard, particularly if the women who are elected are themselves very privileged and ignorant of principles of equity and intersectionality.”