Motion 701 is a proposal before NUS National Conference 2013. It proposes to institute ‘gender balancing’ in 4 different types of elections – reserving 50% of the places (rounded down for odd numbers) for female candidates.
Liam Burns wrote a robust defence of the proposals after some initial criticisms were raised. He separated his argument into several sections, so if I work with his points and then make a few of my own, that seems like a good way of setting things out.
Overall I remain sceptical of the proposals. I worry that we are choosing the most drastic option because it allows us to ‘look busy’ while forgetting the significant downsides of gender quotas.
Before I go on I would like to put in a word about how this whole process began. It’s nice to now see (after compositing!) 701 in all its glory properly set out by DPC. However when the Zone Proposals came out this was far from the case. In fact it was the epitome of NUS obfuscation. Buried in long motions from DPC in small print was a major policy change. I don’t think that’s right and if weren’t for some diligent reading over the New Year holiday I doubt we would have noticed it before our students could take a position on the matter. Additionally, the gender balancing push came out of the Triennial Rules Review, hardly the obvious vehicle for major political decisions, and it was based upon a supposedly representative survey of CMs which had received representations from only 3.5% of SUs. This rigmarole has not been fantastic, to say the least. Hopefully we can learn from this for next time.
So on to Liam’s points:
NUS TELLING SUs WHAT TO DO
Conference is the sovereign body of NUS. So if this debate is about deciding whether or not we should gender balance the Block, Zone Committees, Zone places on the NEC, liberation places on the NEC, and so on, then of course it is right and proper that Conference is where the debate is held.
However, I am concerned about putting the composition of delegations from Students’ Unions into the category of ‘things that can be changed at NUS Conference’. Why is this? Well it’s because the fact that this will require a change to the election rules on our campus. This is a constitutional document. If Newcastle SU wanted to impose a gender quota unilaterally it would require a 2/3rds majority. Newcastle SU, with 6 delegates is one of the larger delegations yet our vote is only 0.4% of the total delegate entitlement.
It seems odd to me that a process that would require broad consensus at the CM level can be introduced by delegates who aren’t even from our campus (they don’t even go here!). I therefore find it hard to agree with the assertion that this is not being imposed from the centre. Yes, SUs will have to agree with it, but that’s the point: if this passes, SUs who disagreed will find themselves facing a new constitution introduced by students from other campuses. In no other way could I envisage anyone even entertaining the notion that the Sabbs at say Durham might get a vote over the Newcastle constitution.
This isn’t just an arcane legal point either. One of the amazing things about the student movement is our incredible diversity in how we operate democratically. For someone who’s been involved with student activism in a Student Council setup, I was baffled when I first read that Leeds just hauled in a small random sample of students to make its political decisions. Equally so when I discovered Liverpool Guild doesn’t even have set positions for its Sabbatical Officers, preferring a 4 place STV mashup.
I doubt these systems would work on our campus, but again that’s the point: what fails here might be brilliant elsewhere. All our campuses come in different shapes and sizes. It is worth noting (more below) that averages can be deceiving: while it is true the average student population is majority female, many campuses are actually majority male.
The appropriate way to introduce gender balancing is for a campus by campus effort. Yes, it’s time consuming, yes it’s slower than just slapping it down on SUs from Conference, but it’s the right thing procedurally to do. If people in central NUS want to debate this issue, the best way is to get on a train and come and talk to our students. They don’t bite, and they’d be more than happy to hear your case.
“MY SU HAS A MAJORITY WOMEN SABB TEAM”
Yes, our does (5/6). It’s also a long lasting thing: we’ve had majority women Sabb teams since my first year. The average for the 3 years I’ve been at Newcastle (plus next year’s incoming team) is 29% male. This year’s Conference delegation is gender balanced, as was last year’s. On top of that the Trustee Board is majority female, as is our Officer team and our Student Council. Incredible really when you think that our campus is actually majority male (at the undergraduate level, according to UCAS). All this, and no quotas.
Now Liam argues back that this is a fortunate example of one Union bucking the trend. And that is a fair point to some extent. However as I argued above I believe the appropriate level to decide delegate quotas is at the CM level. Sheffield SU (majority male) decided that it was right for their Union to impose a gender quota on their NUS delegation elections. Excellent, because that’s a political decision affecting students on their campus being made by political representatives who are visible and accountable to the students on their campus. As opposed to the current situation, which is one where the decisions of other SUs at Conference may prevail over the opinions of students on their campuses.
Of the 120 HE institutions that release the data on the UCAS website, 24% of all undergraduates in campuses were majority male or exactly balanced (see below for list), including interestingly enough Liam’s alma mater of Heriot Watt – which is 60% male. (I couldn’t find equivalent data on FE institutions.) Many HE institutions have mixed campus in the 45-50% male area, some are more lopsided and some even have ratios as low as 25% men 75% women (more on this later).
Liam argues that you shouldn’t do national policy solely on the basis of your experience at your SU. And that’s right – you shouldn’t. But I disagree that this is a national issue. This is an issue for each constituent member to evaluate by themselves relative to their campus. If they have a strong track record of women’s participation, why should a SU be forced to screw up its elections with quotas that aren’t needed?
As food for thought: what is the substantive difference between this measure and a proposal for NUS to excommunicate any SU that does not have a full time Women’s/LGBT/Black/Disabled Officer?
CURRENT REPRESENTATION IS UNFAIR… FACT
This is where I quote Ben Goldacre: “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that”.
As Liam admits, we don’t know why women don’t participate in the student movement to the same extent as men do, with any certainty. It is is disappointing to see that the majority of arguments for 701 have been based on subjective evidence and anecdotes. This is doubly disappointing considering the normally high standard of research NUS produces to back its campaigns and proposals (just look at something like “Broke and Broken” and you’ll know what I mean).
The distribution of male to female ratios in campuses is not, to use a technical phrase, normally distributed. There is a skew: most campuses are in the 45-55% male area, but there are several campuses which have extremely small populations of men on campus. These tend to be small, specialist and humanities-orientated universities (although there are exceptions, such as the Royal Veterinary College). There is a ‘long tail’ of universities which have less than 40% men on them, whereas there are almost no universities with less than 40% women on them. I’ve produced a diagram illustrating the difference between what we actually see in HE institutions (again no data on FE) and what one would expect if there were exactly a 50:50 chance of a campus having a female or male student for any given place. We would expect there to be just 3 campuses with less than 40% men, when actually there are 27.
What does this statistical quirk tell us? That many female students are clustered around a handful of smaller universities, which means that the disparities may not be as extreme as might seem at first glance: if majority female SUs have fewer sabbatical officers, then that will affect the number of female sabbatical officers relative to the population average. If female students don’t get to run to be conference delegates because their union only has one delegate, then that may affect the distribution of conference delegates in a way that would not be obvious.
I use the qualifiers ‘may’, and ‘if’ because frankly I don’t have access to the data required to run that sort of analysis. Again, I would love to see what the FE student numbers looked like – FE delegates tend to turn up less to Conference (because they can’t afford it) so it would be interesting to see if that affected delegation statistics.
Anyhow the overall point of this section is to point out that the reasons why women may not be as represented in HE at least as much as we would expect are nuanced, and to just jump for the crudest option possible as the only acceptable solution is I think is entirely unreasonable.
Liam and the other officers have done two years of painstaking work exploring student attitudes to student finance and how money affects whether students want to go to University. If Liam went round to Ministers saying “The debt is too damn high” or “The Fees! The Horror! The Horror!” and not having any research to back it up, then I expect they would treat him with derision. There is a rich seam of academic work on gender issues, in fact whole degrees are dedicated to the subject. I would have liked to have seen similarly sophisticated research into this complex area as we’ve done with Pound In Your Pocket.
Comparison of expected (red) to actual (blue) number of HE campuses sorted by proportion of men studying at that institution
List of majority male HE institutions: Loughborough, Heriot Watt, Imperial, Bath, Buckingham, Oxford, Portsmouth, Brunel, Southampton Solent, Abertay Dundee, Bolton, Cambridge, Coventry, Aberystwyth, Aston, LSE, Glamorgan, Harper Adams, Newcastle, Sheffield, Warwick.
List of balanced HE institutions: Buckinghamshire New, Greenwich, Hull, Leicester, Nottingham, Queen Mary London.
CHANGING THE ROOT CAUSE vs STRUCTURAL FIXES
Liam uses the interesting analogy of a statistical experiment: if there is a significant deviation from what you would expect, consistent over time, then this is known as a “systematic error” (or more commonly in statistics simply a “bias”). The problem with this line of argument is it confuses inputs and outputs: it’s no good saying the car won’t start because it’s broken if you haven’t put any petrol in the tank.
I challenge anyone to produce one single shred of evidence to suggest that our electoral systems in NUS and SUs are biased against women. This is not the same as simply pointing at the election result and saying “gosh, not many women here”. A proper example of bias (that is rife in society) is when a company receives equally or better qualified women and yet chooses a male candidate – it’s also known as discrimination.
Female candidates face exactly the same electoral system as their male counterparts. I fail to see how there could be any discriminatory element: it’s not like the Returning Officer makes fruity comments about people’s appearance when the candidates step up to the conference platform (unlike a certain President of the United States).
Failure to separate equality of outcomes with equality of opportunity is a recipe for very muddled thinking. Let’s take a quintessential part of the challenge NUS faces: the block of 15 election. The average over the last 3 years is that only 38% of the elected block members were female (2011 saw a relatively balanced block of 47%, 2012 was a nadir with 27%). But if you look at the number of candidates of each gender who stood for election to the block, an interesting picture becomes clear: only 33% of the candidates (average over last 3 years) were female. If anything the women who stand are punching above their weight in the block.
This is one of my key issues with gender balancing the block in particular. If you don’t have a healthy number of candidates standing the gender quota becomes farcical. Which rather defeats the point of the quota, which is to ensure a healthy number of female candidates get elected. This year 7 women are standing for Block of 15: unless RON gets elected (a meteorite hitting Sheffield seems more likely) then under the quota all 7 women would get elected before one vote could be cast in favour of other people. Since 2010 the number of women standing for block has never exceeded 10 out of 15, unlike male candidates who have always exceeded 15.
It’s true, gender balancing the block election might encourage more women to run. Or it might not. To be brutally honest neither side can say with any certainty, so if your argument is that this will boost women’s numbers in the block, then I think you might be guilty of wishful thinking.
TRANS* AND GENDER BALANCING
Despite being gay myself, this is an issue which I know basically nothing about. So like Liam I am going to leave it to better informed and smarter people than me to discuss this.
DON’T PATRONISE – LET WOMEN COMPETE AS EQUALS
One of the most striking things about the debate we had on this topic at Newcastle was the reaction of many female Councillors to the gender balancing approach. They found it patronising, unnecessary and devaluing. They thought that the quota would reduce them to tokenistic status and would make them feel that they did not deserve to win the election. I am not saying that all women think like this – only that these were comments raised in our meeting.
As our Council is 55% women, and 75% voted against gender balancing, it is highly likely that the majority of women voted against it (we have secret voting so I can’t be sure). They recognised that the most equal electoral system, in terms of converting the input of nominees into the output of elected candidates, is one which is quota-free.
Although the title of this section of Liam’s piece suggest that it would be patronising to not institute a gender quota, from what I witnessed in our discussion in Newcastle, quite the opposite was the case: women felt patronised to have a gender quota. This has also been found to be the case when wider society is surveyed. An article in the Sunday Times (“An everyday story of the City’s bias against women”, March 24 2013) summed up the situation neatly when applied to the question of whether to impose gender quotas on company boards:
In the high-octane word of hedge funds 82% of those surveyed said that being a woman was a block on their career progression. The survey also revealed that in the City, 61% said they felt they had to work harder than male colleagues to gain the same level of recognition from managers. However, most women are not in favour of quotas dictating the number of female directors on company boards: only 35% of those surveyed backed the idea.
Another aspect that has not really been covered is that gender balancing is not symmetric. Rather than levelling the playing field and guaranteeing equality, it instead seems to be more like someone ‘putting their thumbs on the scales’ to achieve a desirable result. The knock-on effect is this: women will always hold at least 50% of the seats, and more if more women are successful. But men could never hold a majority in these elections. This strikes me as just plain undemocratic.
Liam argued that opposing a structural change like this is only right if you believe that women are fundamentally worse at representing people than men. But bizarrely such a high gender quota is consistent with the reversed position: that men are fundamentally worse at representing people than women, because they don’t deserve to hold more than 50% of the seats ever. Under gender balancing even if the electorate voted unanimously to give more than 50% of the places to men, they can’t, because the system now prohibits that outcome.
And again this line of argument from Liam misses the point. It is not that women are worse at representing people than men, or that we elect disproportionately less women than should be expected. It is that disproportionately less women stand for election. Motion 701 is fundamentally an attempt to cure the symptoms, not the disease.
TREAT THE DEBATE WITH RESPECT
I agree with Liam here. Whichever side of the debate you’re on, please let’s be courteous and respectful.
I have to admit that I was fearful of writing this article for risk of being vilified or taking a misstep. I know that discussing liberation issues when you’re not a member of the caucus can be a bit of a minefield at times. So I’m grateful that Liam wrote his article so well, because it’s allowed people to be open and honest about the opinions they hold on this topic. It’s also increased the quality of the discussion by a million miles.
So those are all of Liam’s points, now on to a few of my own.
A LOOK AT 701 IN MORE DETAIL
Motion 701 basically proposes 4 things:
- All NUS Conference delegations should be gender balanced,
- All Zone Committees should be gender balanced,
- The Zone NEC places should be gender balanced,
- The Block of 15 should be gender balanced.
I want to unpick each one of these 4 proposals.
NUS Conference Delegations
As I’ve said before I think this is a violation of the political autonomy of our Constituent Members. It doesn’t matter whether 99% of other SUs disagree, NUS Conference is not sovereign over CM Constitutions and so if the students on their campus disagree, then it is they who have the final say. I don’t think we should be inventing situations where we force SUs to comply or be shut out of Conference 2014. Additionally I disagree with the ‘one size fits all’ approach advocated by 701.
I think the problem with delegates is that they’re simply too obscure. Many students don’t know they exist, and often CMs find it easier just to have a quiet ‘election’ in which only the Sabbatical Officers are standing. Both CMs and NUS need to do more work to elevate delegate elections and lift them out of the darkness. We need to make Conference more relevant, understandable and appealing to the average student. I wrote motion 715 with this in mind and I hope you vote for it.
Zone Committee Elections
The remarkable thing about Zone elections is just how diverse they are. In fact, I reckon many people would be shocked to learn than the percentage of women (average over last 3 years) on these committees was 48%. I think what tends to scare people is that they tend to be quite polarised – for example in 2010 while the Union Development Committee was 29% women, the HE Committee was 86% women.
It just strikes me as bizarre that we are taking one not particularly under-represented characteristic of Zone Elections and placing in on a pedestal. A gender quota might be merited if the participation rate were 4.8%, but 48% – really. Yes, it’s not quite the average for students (55% nationally), but it far exceeds the proportion of female sabbatical officers.
NEC Zone Places
Again the statistics are as equally unconvincing as they are for Zone elections. The average for the last three years was that 3 of the 5 NEC places from the Zone Committees were filled by women. So I don’t really get the need for gender balancing, when it seems to happen naturally.
Block of 15
I’ve already talked a fair bit about the block election, so just to summarise. The women’s participation rate in the block election is considerably lower than it is for the Zone Committees. Women stand around 1/3rd of the time for the block and get elected just over 1/3rd of the time as a consequence. This to me seems more like a reason to re-examine the point of the block, or why it is unattractive to female candidates.
I’ve mentioned above the problems that a quota without an increase in participation will bring: you will have people being whisked into seats without having to beat other candidates, which does undermine the whole principle that the block is the authentic voice of Conference holding the Officers to account on a month-to-month basis.
IS GENDER A CHARACTERISTIC WORTHY OF SPECIAL ELECTORAL PROTECTION?
Your gender is one of the 8 ‘protected characteristics’ under equality law, along with your age, sexual orientation, disabilities you may have, marital status, religious beliefs and whether you have reassigned your gender. So of course I’m not questioning that your gender is not a defining characteristic of who you are.
But as the list above noted, it is only one of 8 important facets of your personal status. When considering a candidate in an election voters also take into account hundreds of other factors, such as competence, political outlook, track record, experience, competence, whether the candidate has bothered to canvass them, the quality of their policies, and so on.
When we discussed this at Newcastle we came to the conclusion that not only was gender balancing unnecessary for us, it was also the wrong thing to do. The conclusion we came to is that it would be wrong to prioritise gender over the other issues that go into determining how students vote in NUS elections.
For example, take our delegate elections this year. 5 people were elected – 3 men and 2 women. In this case 2 of the men were international students, and at least one of them self-defined as a black student. I was elected and I self-define as a gay man. One of the key points of intersectional thinking is that you cannot separate these various strands of your persona and start rating people’s oppression on some sort of unified scale.
Would it be right to deprive Conference of a black male student to replace them with a white female student? To replace a gay man with a straight woman? I would argue that no, you can’t separate these issues out. Ultimately the structure of the system has to be blind to your specifics because otherwise you will just impose upon a different set of people in your attempt to apply social justice.
IS IT A PROPORTIONATE RESPONSE?
My final contention is that the scale of the proposed action by the gender balancing proposal is not proportionate to the scale of the problem.
Let me be clear: I do not seek to deny that women face huge challenges just going about their daily lives, challenges that I as a man am privileged not to have to endure. The powerful research by NUS and other organisations such as Everyday Sexism make startling reading for any man. The notion that I would be wolf-whistled at while walking down the street is so alien you might as well be referring to a different planet. That as many as 2/3rds of women feel insecure walking through their campus at night is inconceivable for men. But it happens all the time, in every campus.
And yet the problems this motion raises are not anything to do with this. Of the 4 proposed gender balances, two of the elections (Zone and NEC Zone) are already pretty much gender balanced. If you are arguing that we won’t be able to raise women’s issues as effectively because currently only 48% of Zone committees are female rather than our desired 50%, then I think you are being unreasonable. Again with the block, it’s not like there are no women being elected to the NEC – it’s 38% rather than the desired 50%, and this is down to a lack of applications for the position.
Many campaigners have raised the cases of wider society. This is a more sobering read. In 2011 only 22% of judges were women – and at the High Court level this dropped to 11%. The percentage of women who sit on company boards is a truly risible 10.5%. The number of MPs who are women is a dreadful 23%. The number of cabinet ministers who are women is again even worse at 15.5%.
Liam says we are having this debate because we are leaders of society. I think it’s important not to forget how fantastically good we are at gender diversity. The NUS Board is now majority women. This year the top two leading candidates for the Presidency are women – the day when both Labour and Conservatives are led into a general election by women is one that seems depressingly out of reach.
I want to see more women involved in NUS. I want to see more women standing for delegates, because the present 40% of conference floor being female is unacceptable. But we must not let ourselves down and let our passion justify any action without regard to the costs. Let’s not cross the rubicon, and step back from 701.