Does the USU still need an affirmative action policy?

Five of the nine students running for USU Board this year are women. Mary Ward asks whether this means affirmative action has done its job

picture of election

In May 2007, every person walking up and down Eastern Avenue in a coloured shirt, begging passing students to step inside a booth so that they could send a vote their way in the race to become a USU Board Director, was a man.

This was not because no women were interested, but because those who were had been automatically elected under the USU’s new affirmative action policy, which had been implemented at the previous year’s AGM. There was no need to campaign; the three female candidates in the nine-strong lineup were guaranteed a spot.

Reflecting on the 2007 election in the USU’s 2014 publication We are Women: One Hundred Years, One Hundred Stories, the organisation’s former Vice-President Courtney Tight wrote, “While the women who were elected to the Board were impressive, capable and intelligent, their voice was missing from the election process itself. We had three and a half weeks of just dudes on campus, telling us their thoughts, trying to give away their t-shirts, postering their names on every noticeboard from Holme to Engo.”

The decision to introduce an affirmative action policy came after only two women were elected at each of the 2003, 2004 and 2005 Board elections. The resulting policy, found in section 10.2(c) of the USU’s constitution, stipulates that “five directors shall be elected during years ending in an even number and six directors shall be elected during years ending in an odd number, provided that in any year ending in an even number, two, and in any year ending in an odd number, three such elected Directors shall be wom*n identifying”.

The policy is designed to ensure that, at any time, at least five of the 11 USU student Board Directors are women.

Unfortunately, in its first year of operation, the policy had the – unintended, you would hope – result of making women in student politics more invisible than ever before.

After its stark entry onto the University’s stupol scene nine years ago, affirmative action in the USU Board elections has really become more of a silent overseer than a cause of disruption to campus democracy.

Of the nine elections it has been implemented for, affirmative action has affected the results of just three: 2007, 2009 (in which five women ran, two were elected at the ballot box and one by affirmative action) and – after a prolonged period of inactivity – last year, when it somewhat shockingly came into play on election night, placing SLS’s Shannen Potter above Unity candidate Georg Tamm, who was subsequently knocked out of the race.

(Honi asked both Potter and Tamm to provide comment for this article. While Tamm failed to provide comment by our publication deadline, Potter (who is now the USU’s Honorary Secretary) declined to comment specifically on last year’s election, instead telling us, “[Affirmative action] polices are well known and in my experience well respected within the USU community, and are an essential and established part of operating in a Board election.”)

Describing five years as a “prolonged period” might seem to be a bit hyperbolic: it could have just been a fluke that a sufficient number of women were elected from 2010 to 2014, and five elections is a small sample size. But there were certainly other indicators in that time that real change had occurred regarding student representation and gender within the USU.

Nearly a decade after affirmative action was implemented, it is hard to argue that women are underrepresented on the USU Board. The organisation’s past five Presidents have been woman-identifying and, if bizarre statistics about the upbringings of USU Presidents are your jam (please, not all at once!), consider this: not only have the past five been women, but they all attended single-sex high schools. Not only did they all attend single-sex high schools, but from 2011 to 2013 they had all attended the same North Shore selective single-sex high school. Clearly something in the water at North Sydney Girls.

Women have also been elected at a rate higher than men. During the “even-year” elections of 2012 and 2014 (where the affirmative action quota only required two women to be elected within the five successful candidates) three women made it onto the Board, out-performing their male peers.

This year, for the first time, more women are seeking to be elected to the USU Board than men, with five of this year’s nine candidates identifying as women.

Despite this, USU Wom*n’s portfolio holder, Tiffany Alexander, disagrees that affirmative action measures are no longer needed in the organisation’s annual elections.

“I think the fact that a board, which practices AA during its elections, has had a wom*n-identifying president for the past five years is evidence of the success of AA,” she says, adding that she does not believe examining the gender of executive position holders is a good metric for determining whether the policy is needed, as the executive are elected from within the Board.

“In the general election for Directors, wom*n still undoubtedly face barriers that male candidates don’t – this [has been] both my experience and something I have witnessed numerous times – and until this isn’t true, AA will still be relevant to the USU.”

When Honi asked this year’s crop of Board hopefuls whether they thought the USU still needed a gender-based affirmative action policy at the conclusion of their USU knowledge quiz (see page 16 for how they fared) the answer, from candidates representing all ends of the political spectrum, was a resounding “yes”.

However, some believe the policy needs to go further. NLS candidate Sam Kwon is running on affirmative action for queer and ethnocultural students. Although in recent years queer students have been incredibly well represented on the Board from a statistical perspective, there is certainly a case for the latter; the Board’s Ethnocultural Officer position essentially went to first-year Board Director Atia Rahim by default last year as the only student on the Board who identified as a person of colour.

Developing affirmative action policy is ultimately a subjective act. In 2006, the USU determined female representation on the Board to be problematically low, but there are plenty of other identities with important voices who struggle to either be elected or put their hands up for election: people of colour, postgraduate students, people with religious beliefs, engineering students.

The question for the USU is whether womanhood is still one of those identities.