The Oxford University Labour Club (OULC) has passed a constitutional amendment introducing gender-balanced electoral colleges that allocate 50% of the voting power in executive elections to people who do not self-identify as men.
In Termly General Meetings, when the executive committee is elected, voters are now divided into two electoral colleges: those who self-identify as men and those who do not.
Each electoral college receives equal weight when voting. Anna Coombes, Women’s Officer Elect for OULC, said, “The motion passed with considerable support, with only one vote in opposition and two abstentions. The main concern raised at the meeting was concerning one person, one vote.
“However, the policy does not act to remove this, as each voter still casts only one vote. The idea of the policy is that the women’s voice within the group carries the same weight as the men’s. This does indeed mean giving women an advantage, but we (women in attendance of the Women’s Working Group where the motion was first discussed) felt that such action was necessary in order to address the considerable imbalance that currently prevails within the club.
“Considering that women make up over half of OULC’s membership it is undemocratic and unacceptable that women consistently make up such a small proportion of the executive.
“Looking at this, there is no doubt that there is a problem of womens’ turnout within OULC. This is not due to a lack of trying; the motion was proposed as a last resort after many other initiatives have been tried.”
Representation of women on the OULC executive committee averages at below 20%. In Hilary Term a Women’s Working Group was set up in order to devise measures to tackle the low levels of participation and representation of women in OULC. One student pointed out that, judging by past turnout to Termly General Meetings, women could have 5 times the voting power of the men present.
The motion was also criticised for giving women an unfair advantage in the democratic process. Alastair Holder-Ross, a member of the OULC, said, “I think it’s incredibly important to promote women’s roles within the club and support Helena Dollimore especially in all she has done to that end. However, I think sacrificing fundamental democratic principles is not the best way to serve the cause of gender equality. The amendment does not deal with the causes of the gender imbalance within the club, even if its intentions are noble.”
Rebecca Grant, OULC Women’s Officer who proposed the motion, said, “It does indeed give women a disproportionate advantage – this is the aim of the motion. The turnout of women is a sustained and serious problem which needs to be tackled. One of the best things about the motion is that it adapts as its aims are fulfilled; if more women are encouraged to attend meetings, the relative weight of each vote will go down.
“We have to remember that men have always had, and continue to have, a ‘disproportionate advantage’, and positive and decisive action is needed to redress the balance. It seems odd to be worried about privileging women when women make up less than 20% of the Labour club executive, on average.”
The amendment was passed in a Constitutional Convention on the 6th constitution. OULC were required to reform their constitution after a decision was made by the University Proctors to set a standard for all university-affiliated societies. This raised concerns about how the amendment was to be repealed and whether it needed to be passed on two separate occasions.
Other criticism included the fact that the email detailing the Electoral College motion was sent only 2 1⁄2 hours before the meeting. In response, Grant claimed, “The circulation of the motion prior to the meeting was entirely in line with constitutional requirements. Some other constitutional amendments, such as proxy voting, were introduced and passed at the meeting with no notice at all given beforehand.”
Nick Hilton, a member of the OULC, commented to Cherwell, “Imposing a uniform constitution on Oxford University societies and clubs has worrying implications for their autonomy. The new OULC constitution has been rushed through in order to meet a deadline, mainly so that we can retain the ‘U’ in our name and get a discount on our Fresher’s Fair stall. The proctors are trying to avoid societies embarrassing the University, to which they are affiliated, and, by doing so, control their operations. I think this is a significant and deliberate overreach of their authority.”
A University spokesperson said, “Clubs registered with the Proctors are required to follow the rules laid out in the constitution. This is the implementation of a decision of the Rules Committee which took effect from October 2013 with an academic year’s grace period for existing clubs. The Proctors’ Office is happy to advise individual clubs on specific issues as necessary and to listen to feedback on the constitution. A review of the general oversight of clubs has been agreed and will commence shortly.”