Intimidating aspects of Oxford politics discourage women from speaking
Ariane Laurent-Smith Naomi Southwell
Despite the university’s history of producing prominent female politicians, the atmosphere of political discussion in Oxford does not encourage women to speak, say the women who completed a survey by The Oxford Student. Furthermore, when asked how often they spoke at political discussions, the most common response among those surveyed was “Hardly ever”, with many women giving highly personal accounts of the factors that limit, and encourage, them to speak. This comes in the wake of criticism of the lack of female voices in the ongoing EU debate from Labour’s former deputy leader, Harriet Harman.
When asked whether the atmosphere of the political discussion they attended encouraged women to speak, 46 per cent of those surveyed answered “No” with 32 per cent answering “Yes” and 22 per cent choosing “Other”. A political discussion was taken to include but was not limited to discussions at political debating societies, student politics groups as well as student campaigns and activist groups spanning the entire political spectrum.
Expanding on their choice of “Other” many women highlighted their own personal lack of confidence when it came to speaking, that women were neither encouraged or discouraged to speak or that levels of encouragement varied based on the type of discussion and event in question. Some respondents took issue with the nature of the question, arguing that, “Woman isn’t a personality type so it doesn’t make sense to say it encourages “women” to speak”” and “I don’t need an environment to encourage me to speak…You’re not going to facilitate women speaking by picking out women.”
“Hardly ever” (39 per cent) was the most frequent response to the question of how often do you speak at a political discussion. However, 24 per cent of women said they spoke most times they attended political discussions in Oxford. But a similar amount, 25 per cent, said that they ‘Never’ spoke at political discussions. In 2012/13 Oxford was voted by its students as one of the top 10 political universities in the UK in survey carried out by Which?
Yet, according to our findings, the majority of women surveyed do not feel encouraged to participate in Oxford’s thriving political life. These results come in the wake of a Loughborough University report that found that only one in 10 contributors to the EU debate in the national press were women. Its findings were echoed by Harriet Harman, speaking in Parliament on the issue of female voices in politics, “Half the population of this country are women and our membership of the EU is important to women’s lives. Yet men are, as usual, pushing women out.”
The idea that the attitudes of men themselves may limit women’s participation in political discussion was reflected in the findings of our survey. When asked what factors limited or encouraged women’s participation in political discussion many respondents cited the attitude of some men at political discussions in Oxford, commenting that, “Men speaking over women (almost certainly unconsciously), or ignoring their comments is not infrequent.” Respondents also commented on the further marginalisation of women of colour, queer women and disabled women in Oxford’s political discussions, “I am vastly critical and suspicious of “debating forums” which prioritise a specific kind of tone and debating practice — the boomy-voiced, slightly fatherly or at least avuncular debating style which, by virtue of claiming to stand up for sensible, rational people, actually gets to unfairly lay claim to being ‘sensible’ and ‘rational’ at the expense of the other side. That claim is obviously rife with ableist issues, and is of particular importance to people whose experiences are often played down because they are considered to be unreliable, extreme, silly or unimportant — eg, disabled people, women, [and] people of colour.”
Aside from systematic barriers, the general environment of some Oxford political discussions was also cited as being unconducive to women speaking. Some participants described a “generally intimidating” environment while others remarked that some political contexts feel a lot like an “old boys club”. This reflects concerns over the environment of the UK’s political institutions and the effects this has on the presence of women’s voices. In 2014, John Bercow, the House of Commons Speaker, revealed that several female MPs told him that Prime Minister’s Questions is “so bad” they no longer take part. The “histrionics and cacophony of noise are so damaging as to cause them to look elsewhere”, he added.
We also spoke to women representatives from the major student political societies: Oxford University Conservative Association (OUCA), Oxford University Labour Club (OULC) and the Oxford University Liberal Democrats (OULD). Each society holds a weekly discussion group, usually featuring some sort of alcohol, where topical motions are debated. Lucinda Chamberlain, Chair of OULD and President of both Oxford Students for Liberty and the Addington Society, agreed with respondents’ comments about the atmosphere of political discussions, “women often find it hard to literally be heard in the debate chambers, let alone be listened to and respected. When you have people banging on tables in support of taking away women’s suffrage, that’s not going to do a lot to encourage women to speak.”
On the issue of representation, Lucinda (OULD, OSFL) commented that, “I believe representation is improving, but it still leaves a lot to be desired. Whilst OULD, OULC and OSWEP may all have women at the top of their society at the moment, we continue to be severely underrepresented.” Eleanor Ormsby, Co-Chair of OULC, agreed, adding, “Unfortunately women are very much underrepresented in Oxford student politics. At OULC we are lucky in that we have some really great female activists on our executive and within the club, however women are still in the minority of active members who regularly come to events and participate.”
However, Izzy Corbin, Secretary of OUCA, disagreed somewhat, “Obviously, representation of women in Oxford student politics deserves to be improved. That said, the situation is hardly terrible as it stands and I wouldn’t agree that there are systematic barriers to female involvement in Oxford student politics.”
However, many respondents also commented on factors that encouraged women’s participation in political discussions such as less formal structures or environments, the presence of other women speakers or women leading the discussion and increased audience participation by women. A personal lack of confidence was also cited as a factor that limited women’s participation in political discussions, “I think male beginners are more likely to have the confidence to speak than women beginners” and “I don’t have the confidence, it seems like it’s more acceptable and funny if a man puts himself forward…but for women there’s a greater expectation to be perfect.”
Political societies are also taking steps to improve the participation of women particularly at a committee level. An OULC motion, proposed by their current Co-Chair Eleanor Ormsby, was passed this term which mandated that one of the Co-Chairs must “wholly or partially self-identify, as a woman or transfeminine”. It was inspired by Labour’s all-women shortlists and she believes “will be an effective way to hold executives to account to prevent passive acceptance of lack of female participation.”
We also asked representatives from the political societies whether women were mentored and supported in their organisations. Lucinda asserted that in OULD “there is a somewhat informal mentoring, as I feel I have been encouraged in my society thanks to my female superiors, and I find myself doing the same. One of the most fantastic things about Oxford student politics is the wonderful people who make it up, both male and female, and in OULD we are all incredibly supportive towards one another.” Eleanor explained that she really valued the women’s caucus in OULC and that she felt that “from the very start of my involvement with OULC there have always been a strong and supportive cohort of women.”
The Oxford University branch of the Women’s Equality Party was also established this year. The party was co-founded by Catherine Mayer and Sandi Toksvig, who is known for her comedic performances on programmes such as QI, in 2015. A participant in our survey commented that “OSWEP has been particularly strong with encouraging female students to discuss politically.”
The growth of online political forums such as Open Oxford and its successors, has provided another medium through which people can express their opinions. 57 per cent of women students surveyed said they did not contribute to online discussion forums, whereas 36 per cent said they did. Lucinda asserted that “there is a certain satisfying immediacy to social media activism which is often found lacking by attempting to work through parties or Parliament. It’s far easier to write a post on the ever-popular ‘Openest Oxford’ than to email your MP, and it can often be far more effective.” Izzy felt that it was more often a “specific group of people” who posted online and that our generation still feels very much connected to party politics.
The representation of women of colour and who identify as LQBTQIA+ tends to vary. Lucinda admitted that OULD “like with many societies in Oxford, we suffer from a lack of racial diversity, which is something I find a great shame.” However, Izzy explained that she feels that in OUCA “as far as women are present, women of all backgrounds are represented: I, myself, am mixed race, we currently have an Asian woman on committee and our last female President was Muslim so women of all sorts have been present in OUCA in recent times.”
Lucinda Chamberlain summarised her views on the situation thus, “I am positive about improvement, but not complacent, more needs to be done to promote equality in Oxford student politics.”
From our survey, it seems that many women, even those who go to political discussions, still feel uncomfortable making their voice heard due to the atmosphere of the debate or a more general lack of confidence. Yet, certain political societies are making concerted efforts to encourage the participation of women, both on at debates and on committees, and the chairs of both OULC and OULD are currently women. Women also participate greatly in JCRs, in 2009 for the first time there were more women JCR presidents than men.