Commentary  Where have all the women gone?

SSMU’s disconcerting lack of gender equity in elections

The position of women in electoral politics is, shall we say, less than desirable. Old news, right? One would expect, however, that student union elections would be at the forefront of trends toward equitable representation. My friends, I don’t know how else to put this, but if SSMU is any indication of how women politicians will fare in the future: we are fucked.

In over 100 years of the students’ society, nine of our presidents have been women – the first elected in 1965. In the 21st century, we have elected one woman president. Like many of the women who had previously approached SSMU’s ‘top spot,’ Kay Turner was an incumbent of sorts: she was VP Internal of SSMU in the year prior to her turn as president, which began in 2008-09. Before her, Tara Newell was president in 1997-98.

Women are not being elected by McGill students, and certainly not elected president. This fact should not come as any great surprise. It is symptomatic, however, of a much more disconcerting pattern: women are not even running.

Since the 2000-01 academic year, there have been 35 candidates for president of SSMU. Just five of these candidates have been women. A ratio of one to six is abysmal, especially when you recall that our campus population skews sixty-forty in favour of women.

My own experience at SSMU mimicked these kinds of proportions, only ending when I ran against three men for president. Perhaps the most striking statistic was during my time as an Arts Senator last year: among the 11 student senators elected, I was the only woman.

The last five years have demonstrated a slight trend toward gender parity at SSMU. Executive teams have consistently had two or three women represented among the six spots. However, as former VP Clubs and Services Sarah Olle noted in a February 18, 2010 Daily article, we ought to attend to a disconcerting trend within this “parity.” Roles requiring “external representation to other officials and astute financial analysis” are heavily dominated by men. Since 2000, men have been 10 of 11 presidents and VPs Finance and Operations, while VPs External have been 8 of 11. Meanwhile, the three portfolios where women are making some inroads are described aptly by Olle as “internal, administrative, [and] student-heavy.” VP Clubs and Services is the most heavily dominated by women, with only 3 of the last 11 posts filled by men. VP Internal and VP University Affairs show even odds: 5 of 11 have been men.

I’m just about the last person to appeal to school spirit rhetoric in order to argue that we should elect more women but, to give some context, Queen’s University has had two women presidents in the last three years, and their students just elected another woman to lead the Alma Mater Society in the coming year. That’s right, people. Queen’s. What the fuck?

This special issue of The Daily is dedicated to the future. So here is to a future where I don’t get phone calls from new SSMU councillors asking me if a former colleague “just hates women.” Here’s to a future when a woman candidate isn’t endorsed by the press alongside a caveat that she “control her emotions” (I’m looking at you, Tribune). Here’s to a future when SSMU’s women candidates don’t worry that their campaign photos make them look vapid just because they are smiling. And here’s to a future where maybe, just once, McGill students choose a figurehead from among a crop of presidential wannabes that features more than one woman. God forbid she should be elected for her politics!

Sarah Woolf is a U3 Political Science and Women’s Studies student (Joint Honours) and a member of the QPIRG board of directors. She can be reached at