Out in the cold: Union’s “deeply concerning” gender imbalance

Union members have reacted angrily to a gender imbalance of nearly nine men to every woman in this term’s speaker events.

The Union termcard, published in 0th week, also shows a significant skew in the eight Thursday night debates, of which there is only one where more than one woman is scheduled to appear.

This is also the only event at which female speakers outweigh men, debating the motion “This House believes positive discrimination is a necessary evil”, at which five out of the eight speakers are women.

In total, across both speaker and debate events, 18 women are scheduled to speak, compared to 87 men.

The most glaring gender disparity in a single event is fourth week’s “Religion harms society”, at which there will be only one woman present compared to nine male speakers.

One of the few female speakers that will be attending the Union is Labour MP Katy Clark, who commented on the figures: “I find it deeply concerning that Oxford Union has such stark gender division when it comes to inviting guests to speak.  It is simply inconceivable that a more equal gender balance could not have been achieved at events and debates.”

The North Ayrshire and Arran MP added: “Students who see this gender balance as unacceptable will no doubt face criticism from some quarters from critics, who would rather that society was run on out-dated stereotypes.  However, it will be through organised campaigning and reasoned argument – of the sort which the Oxford debates aspire to – which will succeed in breaking down these barriers.”

Sarah Pine, OUSU VP for Women, commented: “The Union claims to be serious about being at the centre of political debate in the UK, but consistently ignores women’s input into them.

“Each speaker will have been consciously chosen for the term card: no-one turns up magically without being invited, so there would have been active choices from within The Union to prioritise men.

“The absence of women sends out such a bad message that future termcards must be seen from a position that includes women, and their valuable input into political debates.”

Union President Parit Wacharasindhu responded to Pine’s criticisms of the termcard: “We find OUSU’s comments inaccurate, unfounded and offensive, especially to the female committee members, who make up 50% of the elected body and have contributed significantly to the organisation of the society’s debates and speaker meetings. At individual events, such as at George Galloway’s talk last night, we actively and explicitly encourage female members to ask questions and participate in our discussion.”

He added: “The proportion of speakers this term do not at all reflect the gender balance of invitations sent. The Oxford Union attempts to invite a wide range of leading figures from all disciplines, reflecting a diverse cross-section of society at large. We do believe that gender imbalance in society is a serious issue, which is precisely why we will be holding a debate on positive discrimination later this term.”

These figures have sparked a furious reaction from many Union members.

Natasha Rachman, a second year at St John’s and a European University Debating Championship Finalist, echoed these sentiments, saying, “”The fact that women are grossly underrepresented is not made less dispiriting by the fact that it is incredibly unsurprising that an institution primarily composed of men thinks little about the contributions of 50% of the population”.

She added: “I don’t really care if ‘there are fewer women in public life’ (a snivelling excuse to perpetuate structural privilege if there ever was one), there certainly isn’t a 9:1 ratio – this is symptomatic of a problem in the Union not just a reflection of wider society.”

Criticism of the findings has not been restricted to Oxford students.

Daniel Bregman, treasurer of the Debates Selection Committee at the Union, commented, “No doubt the disparity is at least somewhat due to gender disparities in prominent figures in some areas of wider society, but that doesn’t mean the numbers aren’t indicative of a problem the Union should be playing its part to solve.”

He continued: “There are important, successful and impressive women speakers out there whom the Union should be reaching out for, and if they’re finding that more men accept their invitations than women they need to look at why that’s the case.

“Traditionally male-dominated institutions of all kinds should know that it’s not enough to be inclusive on paper, but that inclusivity is something they need to actively build.”

Even those involved at the Union have been critical of the term-card. Chessy Whalen, a second year History student at Balliol who is organising the Oxford Inter-Varsity Debating Competition to be held at the Union in November, said: “I find it incredibly disheartening that the Oxford Union has allowed the speaker events in its term card to reflect the unfortunate reality of the gender divide that exists at the elite level of much of our society, in business, in politics, in the media etc.”

She added: “Although successful and famous men do currently outnumber their female counterparts, the Union should be using their privileged position as an illustrious forum for debate and discussion to challenge this status quo not simply uphold it. I’m hoping for a better balance next term. The world isn’t short of interesting female speakers.”

Others focused on the fact that every debate, bar one, has only one female voice. Klara Slater, a 2nd year PPEist at Lincoln, said: “What I find disappointing is the fact that each debate seems to have one ‘token woman’, apart from Sixth Week, where the motion is on positive discrimination! I would rather speakers be chosen on merit, irrespective of gender. It doesn’t seem as though that is the case looking at the term card.”

However, not all the reaction towards the union was hostile. Abigail Burman, Equal Opportunities President at Corpus Christi, commented: “The gender imbalance in the union’s speakers for the term, while appalling, cannot be viewed as malicious or as specific to the Union.”