Study finds gender, race and sexuality influences participation and experience in undergraduate Student Government at University of Alberta

News Staff - Fri Sep 22, 2017

While women make up 56 per cent of undergraduate students at the University of Alberta, they account for only 30 per cent of student councilors. Between 2005 and 2016, women constituted only a quarter of candidates seeking SU Executive positions. Between 2010 and 2014, there were no female students in any year amongst a five-member SU Executive team. Only 5 women in the past twelve years were candidates for the President’s Office, of which three were elected into office in 2009, 2015, and 2017. While a study undertaken by the American University’s Women and Politics Centre suggests that “holding student leadership positions is often the foundation for holding higher political offices,” female students are passing up these opportunities at the University of Alberta.

“The study shows that women are equally interested in seeking elected office in postsecondary student government, but feel less confident to do so. We should care about that because women's participation in student government has been linked to their participation in leadership roles in politics and society, more broadly,” says Surma Das, University Governance & Advocacy Advisor at the Students’ Union.

A study published by the University of Alberta Students’ Union found that identity has an enormous impact on students’ decisions to get involved in student government at the University of Alberta. The Students’ Union’s Research and Political Affairs Department conducted a study, which included a general survey of 1957 undergraduate students, targeted surveys of student councillors and faculty association executives, and one-on-one interviews with past Students’ Union executives.

Shane Scott, the Vice President Academic at the Students’ Union, was one of the research analysts who worked on the project from its inception in 2016. “I was very passionate about this research project because it gives the Students' Union and the University the ability to shine a spotlight on a real issue in our governance system and across campus,” says Shane. “It's important that we actively work to bring historically marginalized and underrepresented voices to the table and to give them a say in the systems which govern all of us, creating a strong, thriving decision-making body.”

The results were striking, demonstrating gender, race and sexual orientation can influence a student’s desire and confidence to seek elected office in student government as well as their serving experience.

Select highlights of the study include:

  • Gender plays a more significant role than race in confidence to seek elected office at the highest levels of student government, whereas race is a more significant determinant of overall desire to seek leadership positions
  • Women are more likely to indicate that their identity shapes their campaigning experience than men
  • Gender and race, especially when combined, have a negative influence on serving in student representative capacity at the FA and Students’ Council levels

Surma Das will be presenting the results during a special event at GovWeek on September 22 at 2 p.m. in the Students’ Union Building, Room 0-31. The full report is available here.

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