One can only imagine what it must feel like to be a certain censorious Exonian this week. Having spent the last few weeks engaged in a clandestine campaign to tear asunder Exeter MCR’s copy of the Sun, he or she would have awoken last Friday to some new information. Women are, according to a shiny new report from OUSU, largely absent from senior roles within almost every aspect of University life.
Despite our supposed meritocratic ideals, men vastly outweigh women as JCR Presidents, heads of academic departments, and leaders of virtually all of Oxford’s political societies, including OULC, OULD and OUCA. The latter seems to be a particular offender – a piffling 3.5% of Conservative Association presidents have been women. Hardly surprising when the current president Anthony Boutall’s only response to the figures was to point out that he respected lots of women: “I do not just mean the perhaps obvious cases of our ex-President and Patron Margaret Thatcher, and of course the Queen, I refer also to my Mum and late Granny”. Fantastic.
Explanations of the glass ceilings in our ivory towers are as diverse as they are speculative. Some suggest that women are alienated by the male nature of our politics; that hustings, port and policy and a lack of existing role models combine to deter applicants. As the university keenly points out, success rates between male and female applications for academic positions are virtually equal. Perhaps we are undergoing what might be labelled the Hilary Clinton effect: Having elected a black OUSU President, we’re in such a self congratulatory mood that we’re happy to ignore our ongoing lack of female leadership.
Regardless of the explanation, one can be fairly certain of the nature of the response: lackadaisical. In a University of decisive positions, our collective attitude towards gender can at best be described as vague. There is, of course, the obligatory egalitarian gloss over anything said directly about the issue – but in a practical context, there is little consensus as to what we are supposed to think or do. Virtually every other week, OUSU’s poor women’s officer has to drag herself out to be “shocked and appalled” by yet another KY-jellied-topless snake charmer or similar – usually met by a near universal shrug of shoulders.
The University’s attitude seems nearly as ill defined as our own. Regarding pornography, college IT departments are apparently relatively indifferent to our surfing habits. Cherwell doesn’t suggest that the University should engage in censorship: intrusions into what we are allowed to see, hear and read are dangerous and an insult to our autonomy as students. However it is arguable that the widespread vacuum of silence on gender issues is damaging. If we or the University are going to tolerate activities which must ultimately be recognised as demeaning to women on the grounds of free speech, it should be made clear that we have prioritised freedom of expression over a boundary of respectful conduct regarding women. As it is, prospective female leaders are confronted with a series of arguably sexist incidences that seem to discredit their gender in any serious context. These events persist on a sort of “who cares?” basis – there is no clear reason given as to why we tolerate them. At best, this indicates apathy to sexism; at worst, it seems like an endorsement. Certainly, in some quarters, it probably is.
Clearly, women are being objectified for an audience; an audience that is then arguably less likely to vote for them, and even if that is not the case, they are generally perceived as being less likely to. Cherwell would hope that this group doesn’t represent us as a student body – but it isn’t clear that this is the case, because as a student body we are overwhelmingly indifferent. Some students will go to a club to see topless dancers; some will go because they were going anyway. Both groups are at the club – it isn’t very easy to pick them apart. Until we clarify our standpoint, until we are more forthcoming with our views, female candidates for senior roles within our community will feel that they may not be taken seriously. This isn’t the only obstacle to equality at the top of the ladder – once a good female candidate comes along, we also have to vote for them. However, some clarity and honesty on the issue would be a good start.