The Oxford Union must reflect an equal society


The arrival of The Union Term Card is always something I look forward to and I remember regularly checking in the months before arriving in freshers’ week for the speakers to be announced online. Three terms on though, and this excitement has been supressed by a feeling of severe disheartenment. As I look through the Term Card’s speaker events, the number of white, male faces is overwhelming. With specific relation to the disparity between genders, there are 52 male speakers in comparison to just 13 female. This inequality is not specific to the speaker events: the debate over private schools does not list a single female voice.

Although The Union is tied to the speakers who accept the invitation to speak, I cannot imagine that the percentage of invitations sent to female speakers is anywhere near 50%, given how low representation of female voices is. Given that 46% of the Oxford University student body is female, these figures from the Term Card are simply abysmal and discouraging.

Some will argue that women are less likely to want to and therefore accept to speak at The Union than men. This would mean that even if the number of invitations sent by The Union were to represent the 50:50 gender split in the population, the term card would fail to reflect that balance. However, this must not be used as an excuse as it highlights a far more troubling issue. What is it that makes The Union an unappealing place for women? If it is the case, that women are put off by The Union, this must be addressed.

If this issue is not addressed and the unwelcoming atmosphere remains, then it is impossible to attract more women to speak. This maintained low number of female speakers preserves the negative attitude amongst women towards The Union and we find ourselves caught in a vicious cycle. The recent BBC regulation that all panel shows must have at least one female voice highlighted that while women are invited, the nature of the shows can be off-putting and cause them to decline the invitation. Danny Cohen, Director of BBC Television stated, regarding all male-panels “You can’t do that. It’s not acceptable”. By realising that this is an issue, the BBC is making steps to change this culture.

The questions raised by this obvious disparity are not confined merely to gender equality. The heavy featuring of white, male CEOs instils one specific image of ‘success’ defined by achievement in traditionally male-dominated areas. Success takes many forms. It is not, and indeed should not be, restricted a select few arenas. It is a widely recognised fact that women and minority groups are underrepresented in certain – traditionally – powerful positions. But why should we accept this norm that being a CEO equals success? Success should be about self-realisation, not fitting into preconceived definitions.

If we do not question these norms, they simply become passive. We flick through the Term Card and subconsciously accept the image of success as a white, middle-aged man in a suit. There is an infinite variety of opportunities to take hold of and unless these ideas of ‘success’ are challenged we will be unable to appreciate their worth and appeal.

Although arbitrary quotas are not necessarily conducive to an exciting term card, the active pursuit of women, minorities, and moreover speakers who are successful in a wider-range of fields, is. As such a prestigious society, The Union has not just a duty, but also an opportunity to engage and inspire the next generation of successful individuals. In hindering the exploration of our understanding of success, we are restricting our own development.

The discourse around equality and progression in Oxford is arguably one of the liveliest in the world, and for its debating union not to partake in this is both incongruous and depressing. By underrepresenting women and minorities in its speaker events and debates, and principally focusing on traditional ideas of achievement, The Union is preserving the ingrained and deeply problematic ideas surrounding success and gender.

There is no quick fix to this situation. The Union may well blame societal structures, but in not actively addressing these issues and seeking to make a change, The Union is perpetuating these norms. For a society which states it aim as “to promote debate and discussion not just in Oxford University, but across the globe” it must play a more effective role in the attempt to create a more equal and open-minded society.

PHOTO/ Padraic