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The Sexist World of Student Elections

With women increasingly nominating themselves for positions, it would appear that female students enjoy an equal opportunity to vie for the role as their male counterparts. But what initially appears to be an environment of gender equality at my Union is not as such the case.

'Wren-ovate Welfare'. 'Jinn it to win it'. 'Education needs a Rae of sunshine.' It seems that election season, with some of the most memorable slogans (Get Busy with Fizzy anyone?), is an inescapable and endemic feature of campus life for students during the penultimate term.

From candidates hijacking your 9am lecture launching into a well-rehearsed speech about why they're the best person for the role to 'Facebook Politics', where for one seemingly never-ending week, students tirelessly promote their chosen candidate's manifesto, candidates and their campaigning teams work tirelessly to win the favour of the student body.

But at my Union, a sexist side of elections has reared its ugly head. With women increasingly nominating themselves for positions, it would appear that female students enjoy an equal opportunity to vie for the role as their male counterparts. But what initially appears to be an environment of gender equality at my Union is not as such the case.

Despite more than half of the student population constituting of females, it is astounding that a female President has not been elected to power in 10 years. And unfortunately it appears as if the vicious cycle of female under-presentation will repeat itself for the eleventh year, with two male candidates at present vying for the role. But it isn't merely the role of President which will soon be occupied by a male student which serves to highlight the endemic gender inequality on campus, but women's under-representation in the majority of leadership positions at my Union. At present, a mere two of the six Student Officers are occupied by women, with the Women's Officer only available to the female student body to stand for.

The idea that we should surrender positions of power to the male student body is seemingly arguably ingrained in campus life. Just last Wednesday at its weekly meeting, members of Sheffield Student Union's Women's Committee articulated their desire to run as a Student Officer, all of whom are articulate, intelligent and competent. However, those women were unanimous in their reluctance to do for fear of the vitriolic abuse that female candidates have historically been subjected to both during the campaigning season and during the role itself.

University of Sheffield's Women's Officer Amy Masson recalls the online abuse she has since received since her election: 'On the night of my election as Women's Officer I received a death threat telling me to 'die bitch die'. Since starting my year in Office in July I have been called a 'bitch', 'slut', 'man-hater' and that I should 'get raped you whore' - all online. This is on top of very many other aggressive and nasty personal comments (largely by people who have never met me). Such instances have made me feel unsafe at work and at home.'

More shockingly, more than one female student has withdrawn from the elections for fear of the spate of sexist and misogynistic abuse that accompanies female students nominating themselves for such positions of power traditionally occupied by their male counterparts. One such student is Chair of Women's Committee Hannah Rudman: 'I think one of the most important reasons women don't stand is because you face a disproportionate amount of criticism and when you see that happen to others it puts you off. This was definitely a factor in me withdrawing from running for Women's Officer. It is hard to desire to do something that you know people will criticise you for and that this can sometimes get very nasty and very personal.'

However, it appears as if such unwillingness to stand for elections is not merely exclusive to the Women's Committee. At present, not one female student has nominated themselves for two prestigious positions: Education Officer and Development Officer. However, female underrepresentation in political life is arguably not solely a response to the intense online witch-hunt female candidates are subject to but is self-perpetuating. Rudman concurs: ''you don't see women in those positions and so don't think it is something you should stand for: "you can't be what you can't see"'.

Such institutional sexism is depressingly reflective of wider society. Despite Cameron's ambition that women would constitute one-third of ministerial posts, at present, a mere 4 of Cameron's 27 strong Cabinet Ministers are occupied by women. Just last September, former Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman and former Chairman Baroness Warsi were demoted from their high-profile positions while former Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan and former Education Minister Sarah Teather were axed respectively in Cameron's reshuffle.

If our current government fails to actively encourage and promote professional equality, this sends the message to the wider public that prohibiting women from occupying positions of power is acceptable. The shocking erasure of female government ministers in Cameron's Cabinet is suspiciously not too dissimilar from women's absence in powerful roles in my Union. Despite the first (and only) female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher serving as a powerful totem for women's empowerment, it is arguable that women are not as such exploiting the legacy that she left behind to that they too can penetrate and occupy positions of power traditionally occupied by their male counterparts.

Despite this bleak reality, significant progress appears to have been made towards equal representation at my Union. Although women occupy the position of secretary in the majority of student committees and societies whilst their male counterparts undertake the more arguably impressive role of Chair or President, there appears to be an increase of female Presidents, most notably the Editor of the independent student newspaper Forge Press who has repeatedly displayed her competency since she secured the role in April 2012. And even more optimistically, a female is running for Sports Officer who is arguably as equally as competent for the role as her male competitors. However, while I celebrate the achievements of such women, it is essential that we make more active efforts to encourage women to stand for election at our institution and to provide with women the confidence to challenge the endemic attitudes that prevent them from occupying leadership positions.

While I do not advocate voting for a candidate based on their sex but solely on their competency, equal representation is a fundamental aspect of democracy that University of Sheffield's Student Union so prides itself on. Yet it seems unlikely at this point in time that the persistent underrepresentation of women in leadership positions on campus will cease to decline anytime soon.

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