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Sexism and Silence in SSMU

Gender-based discrimination goes unchecked and creates a toxic environment, sources say

*disclaimer: Though the majority of the people in this story identify as women, gendered discrimination disproportionately affects people that are roughly grouped into the category of woman, but includes other marginalized genders. In an effort to encapsulate these wide ranges of experience, behaviour that may usually be called ‘sexism’ or ‘misogyny’ will be referred to as gendered discrimination. *

*names changed to preserve anonymity

“For every genuinely good idea that a man in student government goes public with, there were 9 more terrible ideas he boldly threw into a room and would have acted upon had someone who wasn’t a man not painstakingly explained to him why they were terrible. For every project I completed that was specific to my portfolio, there were 9 more fires I felt obligated to help put out that impeded upon my ability to do my own work.”

Though former VP University Affairs Madeline Wilson could have spent her year on the Executive team attempting to reform and rewire the social culture of SSMU through conscious efforts, she tells the Daily she knows better: “a man can take the whole thing down with his hubris in a week.” Suspended in 2020 for using “profanity” during a Legislative Council meeting, Wilson is intimately familiar with the double standards present in student governance.

Not merely a leadership organization, but a workplace with dozens of employees, SSMU and other student governance organizations are rife with opportunity for discrimination.

“Student government, unfortunately, attracts a certain type of student,” says former SSMU President Bryan Buraga, “one that is more interested in cosplaying as their favourite politician and padding their resume than actively working for the benefit of their constituents and to dismantle the systems of oppression inherent in our university and student unions.”

“The issue with SSMU is that these feelings translate to a culture of gossip and toxicity. Word spreads quickly, and you’re either “in” or you’re “out”. This creates a culture of distrust and alienation.”

Add mixed feelings, distrust and gossip to long (underpaid) hours with the same group of people and the resulting work environment is familiar, informal, and blurs the lines between work and personal relationships.

Feeding this social environment, students say, is an unfettered culture of misogyny. Speaking to the Daily anonymously, students involved with campus governance organizations shared their experiences with gender-based discrimination by their male peers, as well as the lasting effects of their environment.

Rumours about this kind of culture come more in the form of a warning; “SSMU is a male-dominated space,” one student was cautioned at a SSMU retreat.

Sources tell the Daily they are left feeling without recourse for what they’ve experienced, and that discriminatory and abusive behaviour is excused, rather than acted on, by SSMU.

What’s worse, current SSMU employees report that they were promised a ‘safe space’ by their President; so far, they say, they’ve received the opposite.

The majority of these experiences are confidential, and can’t be shared publicly without risk to the individuals they are attached to – a feature of the many barriers that keeps workplace discrimination behind closed doors.

In the last year or so, experiences reported to the Daily about men employed by SSMU range from insensitive comments to alleged harassment. Sources believe these patterns of discriminatory and harmful behaviour are indicative of deeper issues within the current executive team.

Sources shared concerns that some male executives attempt to manipulate procedure for their own gain and goals, even when doing this acts at a detriment to SSMU’s operations.

In a Legislative Council meeting taking place on October 8, 2020, one executive spoke against an increase of the SSMU Daycare fee. The fee increase, set only to fifty cents, would go towards the SSMU-run centre providing reduced-cost daycare to students and McGill Staff. The executive argued that “students who do not use the daycare should not have to pay for it.” However, according to several sources and councillors present at the debate, the fee renewal failing would likely cause the centre to close or reduce its lack of enrolment due to lack of funds – which was pointed out to the then Senator.

Linking this and similar behaviour across the year’s meetings to their interpersonal experiences, sources within SSMU told the Daily that the executive’s “indifference towards a service that is often seen as benefiting – if not solely – women and caregivers is indicative of his attitude towards female peers and subordinates.”

Later, in an AUS meeting on March 9, 2021, the same executive attempted to stall a motion concerning the adoption of a committee for the AUS’ Involvement Restriction Policy (IRP) to be established – motioning for it to be tabled indefinitely, citing concerns about “abuse of power.” The IRP policy allows survivors of sexual violence to safely and confidentially disclose the identity of their abuser, so that they will be banned from future campus drinking events; the motion was only appointing members to the committee, not to any body that would have authority over cases.

Even after being told his concerns were not necessary, the then Senator proceeded with the motion, arguing that lawyers should look over it first – a delay of weeks, if not months. Despite several councillors advising against this – as a recently disclosed IRP case would also be pushed indefinitely as consequence – the Senator ignored their contributions. An indefinite ‘investigation’ into the “potential harm” of an abuse of power – especially as an association with a robust conflict of interest policy – is dangerous to weigh against the “actual harm, that is the delay this process would have on the [survivor];” a fact that, again, was explained to the then Senator.

Issues like this aren’t isolated to any one portfolio; the Executive team leads several committees and oversees dozens of staff each, a difficult environment is near impossible to avoid. With the exception of the Board of Directors, all paid employees at SSMU are subordinates of the Executive team regardless of their portfolio, creating a strict hierarchy.

Multiple co-workers of one executive told the Daily his poor treatment of women and marginalized genders goes beyond difficult meetings, as he is known to micromanage and allegedly harass female colleagues and staff. Reporting feeling like they aren’t trusted to do their jobs, they note that this treatment is rarely extended to other men on staff. 

“The rules [in SSMU] don’t apply to men, they never have,” one SSMU employee says; others agree, male executives almost never face consequences. Though suspensions are confidential, they can surface when details are leaked, usually as a result of a breach of confidentiality; campus outlets have reported on two suspensions in the last five years, and sources within SSMU disclosed another two – but none of the suspended individuals were men.

Unfortunately, these experiences are not new, and in fact are part of a long lineage of overworked women fulfilling executive roles without respect or recognition. Double standards exist not just on the side of consequences, but on division of labour. 

Expected to take on traditionally gendered roles like administrative tasks, Laura* shared she would  “often see my male coworkers ‘volunteer’ my female colleagues for certain types of labour, like communications, with little thought as to the amount of work a task necessitates or what other projects someone might have going on.”

The suspension of Madeline Wilson (VP UA) in 2020 raised several concerns about double standards of professionalism within student government. Recalling the incident, former SSMU President Bryan Buraga tells the Daily that “this pattern of tone-policing is not new, and past student politicians of marginalized genders have spoken out about this in the past.”

Female employees also report feeling higher expectations, or a greater pressure to prove themselves. Wilson says the emotional labour she undertook while on SSMU manifested in many ways, but one of the “most prominent and tiring aspects” that she felt was tied directly to her gender identity was the “expectation that [she] existed as a filter for men’s ideas.” 

“Men who should have done their own god damn research and ideas they felt they had to have to retroactively justify holding their position of power in the first place.”

“When men make mistakes, they’re given the benefit of the doubt,”  Laura* says. “People seek to excuse their behaviour, even when it’s a serious incident or something that a woman has been suspended over. When women make mistakes, people jump to discipline them with little thought as to how it will affect the individual, SSMU, and its ongoing work. Men make the same mistakes that people of other genders make at SSMU, but no men have been suspended in recent history.”

As women, Madison* tells the Daily, there’s also a “heightened expectation to be emotionally invested in your work. This year, myself and a few of my peers have been very emotional in meetings following clear sexism from male colleagues. We have to set boundaries and be outspoken. We have to call out our male colleagues on their sexist behaviour, which in itself is emotionally draining and not easy to do. At the end of the day, this is an unpaid extra-curricular activity – it should not require the emotional investment and hardship that it does. For an organization which prides itself on equity and being survivor centric, it sure does treat its main workbase like garbage.” 

This emotional labor, Madison* says, is “not recognized whatsoever” by men at SSMU.

Several students came forward with experiences of being spoken over or interrupted during meetings – even having male colleagues claim their ideas as their own. Because of the prevalence of this behaviour, they say they’ve often avoided participating in meetings, knowing speaking up means being shut down or gaslit by male peers. Instead of admitting mistakes or conceding to corrections, they say male executives discredit and contradict the contributions of their colleagues, often women.

“I joined SSMU to lead and to work, I didn’t want to get a reputation. So I kept quiet.”


The effects of this kind of behaviour reach beyond council meeting rooms, as the treatment they experience takes an emotional toll, weighing heavily on students’ mental health. “It’s frustrating,” one student tells the Daily, that her male co-workers act like the rules don’t apply to them, but will “aggressively enforce them on others.” According to sources, an executive has caused female peers to break down in tears during meetings multiple times, and has become hostile when confronted in the past.

“I feel like I have to be perfect and keep my head down, but men can do whatever they want and get away with it. My friends have lost income, time and opportunities and [men] just get a slap on the wrist.”

Often these consequences – namely suspension, like Wilson’s – result in loss of pay, and sources say, are detrimental setbacks to SSMU’s work. The effects of hostile work culture are also barriers to the organization’s efficacy, as sources report withdrawing from meetings, debates and activities that would be led by their male colleagues. Given the amount of committees and activities that fall under various executive’s portfolios, avoiding confrontations is near impossible.

One SSMU employee, Laura*, said she’s been unable to ignore the long-term effects of this behaviour after working with one executive for over a year. “I won’t speak up in classes with men now because I’m afraid of being harassed and treated the same way [this executive] treats me,” she shared with the Daily. “I used to think of myself as an intelligent, driven, and valuable person that had a lot to offer, and now I can’t even speak in class without shaking.”

The other students echoed this, reporting their need to start or increase anti-anxiety medication to try to deal with the constant stress.

However, the resources in place to deal with exactly these kinds of issues presents a dead end for employees looking for support.

One of the biggest barriers in the efficacy of SSMU’s Human Resources seems to lie in SSMU’s system of overlapping hierarchies. The Executive team supervises and has authority over HR, making safe disclosures difficult; disclosing to HR raises issues with privacy, safety, and job security, defeating the department’s very purpose.

Laura* tells the Daily that “this places Human Resources in situations where they would be asked to reprimand their supervisors, which can be an uncomfortable dynamic. I disclosed experiences that I had faced to Human Resources, but I did not feel respected or listened to.”

“Many of the mechanisms in place, such as equity committees, are run by students as well,” Madison echoes. “This is problematic because you are essentially disclosing very personal events and emotions to a student who also goes to McGill, and probably knows all the people involved. It’s not really a safe space to speak freely and get justice.”

In her own experience with Human Resources, Laura* says she was talked out of filing a formal complaint; told that it’s “too difficult to see the short-term effects of long-standing patterns of behaviour,” and there was nothing more to be done. “I was treated in a way that was not trauma-informed, and it was very upsetting to me. A lack of confidentiality and professional behaviour means that people often don’t disclose to HR;  I’ve had multiple people say to me, ‘I told them what happened but I know they won’t do anything.’”

According to the Daily’s sources, the executive in question has been made aware of how his actions hurt others. Despite this he continues to claim that the staff who have come forward are lying and that he is the one being unfairly targeted, raising another barrier to the possibility of disclosure.

By the time of publication, at least four students involved with SSMU have confirmed speaking to SSMU Human Resources about a single executive’s behaviour. None of the disclosures were followed up on properly, nor does it seem any action was taken.

It’s not only HR that effectively looks the other way: students say that despite receiving private messages from other male peers condemning their treatment, actual confrontations or gestures of support are rare. 

When another student, Jasmine*, did receive advice from male colleagues, they suggested she wait to address it until he “snaps” or “gets physical.” 

Students have tried to speak up themselves – but constantly calling out your peers is difficult and emotionally taxing. Madison* tells the Daily that, “Even when male colleagues see behaviour and agree that it’s bad, most won’t speak up until a woman speaks up first.”

“As in any situation, the burden of coming forward about a harmful experience or advocating for oneself often falls on those who are experiencing it themselves.”

“It’s emotionally draining and socially ostracizing to call out all the bad behaviour I see,” Laura* says, “and it’s not my job to educate my male peers about why their behaviour isn’t acceptable. I know I belong in my role and that I’m good at what I do, but I should be using my energy to focus on my job rather than on protecting myself from the very team members who are supposed to be supporting me.”

Further, much of the misogynistic behaviour and gender based discrimination within SSMU manifests in ways that aren’t blatant or explicit, making it more difficult to recognize and address. SSMU, faculty societies, and other student governance organizations seem to benefit from the relative privacy and anonymity that low voter turnout and confidentiality affords; the majority of the student body doesn’t have access to how executives act behind closed doors. Discriminatory treatment of women and marginalized genders in the workplace is often interpersonal – meaning it’s more likely to be dismissed, and is difficult to see on an election platform.

“In many cases,” Laura shares, “it’s not one glaring incident that you can label as blatant sexism. It’s a million different incidents where I’m not given the same basic respect or benefit of the doubt as my male peers.”

The majority of these experiences happen in confidential sessions that the rest of the student body will never see, or buried in minutes only a handful of people read. Without institutionally approved evidence, what can’t be found on paper may as well not exist. Information that is pertinent to McGill students, that raises questions about SSMU’s safety and efficacy, is privileged in a way that only serves to support the behaviour it engenders. Though leaks are essentially the only way information deemed confidential gets out of SSMU, the cost for executives is high: a breach of confidentiality is grounds for suspension without pay.

Not being able to share all of her experiences, Laura* says “it becomes incredibly taxing to try to explain all the behaviour that happens in private to others. It’s so invalidating when men I work with have this totally progressive attitude in public, but won’t treat me with basic respect when we’re out of the public eye.” 

Though several students shared stories of female peers staying behind in meetings to ensure no one would be alone with an executive known to be a problem, this kind of safekeeping shouldn’t be necessary. While there may be important solidarity and support shared between women, there’s a need for these issues to be more widely addressed. Networks of information sharing are crucial in safe-keeping practices across workplaces, educational institutions and communities, but they can only address the surface of issues that are perpetuated by a deeply rooted culture.

“It’s difficult to capture these micro-aggressions and to be taken seriously about them,” Madison* says, “when most of the people in power are either men, people who don’t care, or both.”

The students who spoke to the Daily say that the persistence of gender-based discrimination can be credited to a skewed culture within organizations like SSMU, and a lack of willingness to call out or reflect on behaviour.

“Men who behave this way are never reprimanded,” Laura* adds. “What happens at SSMU is a lot like what happens everywhere else – if men act like this with impunity, this behaviour cannot be expected to stop. People bend over backwards to excuse men’s behaviour but won’t make even the smallest effort to make sure women feel safe and comfortable.”

Madison* agrees, saying “there’s very much a ‘boy’s club’ culture and a culture of protection,” though she admits it’s not explicit. “I think that some men […] refuse to believe their friends could be misogynistic.”

The pervasiveness of sexist behaviour and discrimination is worrying, and calls into question SSMU’s authenticity as an organization that supports survivors. Whether or not they are seen as such, organizations like SSMU are workplaces that can be the site of significant power imbalance, as well as wielding effective power of its own; both have the ability to make mistakes with detrimental consequences.

Of course, SSMU and faculty associations are institutions like any other, and their prejudiced roots grow deep.

Calling it a “deeply self-reinforcing structure,” Wilson says student governance “attracts the kinds of people who will uphold the systems and norms that it was built upon, and slowly breaks down anyone who seeks to change or upend it.” 

“It also does not help that these systems foster a sense of discontinuity with the student body at-large,” Buraga says, “leading to the reinforcement (and perception) of our student governments as social clubs for a select few rather than as unions built on solidarity that works for the advancement of the interests of all students.”

As for current SSMU employees, sources say the current environment isn’t sustainable – Laura* says she “can’t keep this up all year.”

Madison* shares Laura’s* weariness, saying that “if the learning process doesn’t begin soon, women will have no other option but to resign.” 

The Daily has reached out to a member of the executive team implicated by accusations of gender-based discrimination for comment, but has not yet received a response.

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If you or someone you know if experiencing gender-based discrimination or violence, you can reach out to the following resources for help:

SACOMSS provides resources and support, as well as drop-in and phone services. They can be reached at (514) 398-8500.