The Oxford Union has voted down a move to impose a quota of at least one woman on the Debates Selection Committee (DSC) after some female debaters labelled the motion “insulting.”
The Union President, Charlie Holt, proposed that the debating committee must contain at least one male and one female member. Currently, all of the members are men, including the women’s officer.
The Union’s standing committee failed to pass the motion after debaters Ellen Robertson and Rachel Watson had set up a facebook group to petition against it and sent them a letter of opposition signed by debaters, both male and female.
Holt explained his support for the idea, “there is a problem of image and perception, in that an all-male DSC is likely to alienate female debaters and make them less enthusiastic about getting involved. A female women’s officer would inevitably have a better understanding of the problems that women debaters face and would be far more approachable to women who want to get involved.”
Joanna Farmer, a debater who campaigned against the motion, said, “for something like DSC, based on fixed criteria, it is slightly insulting to have someone there who bypassed the criteria and got on because of their gender. I am sure that, because of the individuals on DSC, she would not experience any discrimination by those on DSC, but it’s a matter of perception. Furthermore, I don’t think this would do anything to solve the perceived problem.”
She added, “I didn’t think there was a problem with the DSC women’s officer being a man because I’m not sure if there are any ‘women’s issues’ in debating. It’s not like we need motions to cover ‘girly’ things. It would be ideal for the women’s officer to be a woman, but not essential.”
Farmer welcomed the motion’s failure, saying, “we hope that it opens the door for a meaningful discussion of the issues at the root of the problem.”
Max Kasriel, a DSC member, expressed his approval at the motion’s failure. He said, “I think that the quota belittles the achievements of women in debating.”
He added, “we have been making a special effort to ensure that women are prominent at our events, having women take part in our ‘show debates’ to provide female role models, and asking women to judge our internal competitions.”
Some other debaters have voiced support for the quota, several questioning whether the opinion of the campaigners represents that of the whole female membership of the Union.
Alex Worsnip, a former Chair of DSC argued, “my view, based on observations over many years, is that having an all-male contingent fulfilling this role discourages female participation, particularly, but not exclusively, amongst novices. I therefore took the view that a quota for DSC would help to combat this, and was involved with first bringing the idea to committee in November 2007.”
He added, “I was disappointed to see that the quota did not pass in the end, but I do hope that DSC gets some female members in the near future anyway.”
Stuart Cullen said the women’s quota would help to dispel the image of a male-dominated DSC and fewer women would feel put off and intimidated.
He said, “when women attend the first sessions of debating in 1st week of Michaelmas, everyone who addresses them is male. This creates a perception that women are under-represented.
“If even one member of DSC were to be a woman, whether or not she was there by virtue of a quota, it would significantly dispel this negative impression.”
But he added, “if the vast majority of female debaters are totally opposed to a quota, it will not be particularly effective, and probably shouldn’t be passed.”
Rachel Cummings, OUSU Rep for Women, praised the proposal of a women’s quota. She said, “personally I am in favour of a quota. There is a problem with women’s involvement in Union debating, women should be the ones leading the work to change this and such work would be best done from within the DSC. Quotas are only patronising if we think women are genuinely worse (rather than facing structural or cultural barriers) and this certainly isn’t the case.”