Why women’s officers?

Gender Agenda
Gender Agenda

Issue 2 Michaelmas 2002

The magazine of

Women's Union

Why women’s officers?

Jess Childs

A year ago, I held the position of Women’s Officer at King’s. In my experience, most people
accepted the need for a Women’s Officer and I wasn’t faced with challenges to remove my post
from the Student Union. Generally, the problems that Cambridge female students face are well
publicised and the need for a student union officer devoted to addressing such issues as the
lack of child care facilities and women’s academic under-achievement is apparent to
many. However, what I found to be the most controversial features of the post is how it is
elected. Two main questions are asked: why can women only stand and why can women only
vote? The argument goes that surely if the Women’s Officer role is committed to ensuring
equality between the sexes in all areas of Cambridge life, then in the spirit of equality both
men and women should be able to stand for and vote for the position. There are though several
good reasons why this should not be the case and why it should be women alone who stand and
vote for this post.

Firstly, why should it remain women only standing? A crucial reason is for
representation. Cambridge remains a male dominated environment. This is the case at the
higher echelons of the university, where male dominated committees make crucial decisions
about our student lives, and sometimes need reminding that changes need to be made to ensure
that problems faced by female students are addressed. Having a CUSU Women’s Officer can help
ensure some representation on important university committees for women. The problem also
exists at a student union level. Many student committees are male dominated and a low
proportion of JCR presidents are female. Although this year’s CUSU Sabbatical team has four
female officers, a college Women’s Officer can ensure women’s interests are always represented
on a student committee. It could be argued that a man could represent women’s interests on a
committee just as well, but as with all representative campaigns, the question is can someone
who is not part of that minority group really understand the issues that that group
faces? Whilst I do not doubt at all the commitment of many men to equality and the arguments
of feminism, it just sometimes happens that it takes a woman to really see how certain
university policies can impact on the female student population.

A central part of the Women’s Officer role is casework and provision of welfare
services. These welfare services are vital to many female students, and can often be the only
reason that they will come into contact with the student union. Whilst students might not
always take interest in the ‘political’ side of the student union, the ‘welfare’ side is
something that helps everyone practically in day to day life, whether it in the provision of
contraceptives or in resources to help with study skills. The ‘welfare’ aspect of the role is
a major reason why a Women’s Officer should always be female. Just as a woman should have the
right to choose to go to a female doctor if she has a particular health issue, or the right to
speak to a female police officer in the case of reporting a particular crime, so any female
student should have the right to approach a female student union officer with her
problems. Women’s Officers are a point of contact for women when they have a whole range of
problems ranging from pregnancy, to sexual assualt, to sexual discrimination. In these cases,
although a male Women’s Officer could undoubtedly be just as sympathetic and effective as a
female Women’s Officer, it is the case that a female student may not be comfortable
approaching a man with her problem.

The importance of this casework role is a main reason why it should be women alone who vote
for the position. The Women’s Officer should be someone who female students feel comfortable
approaching and the election vote is the way of indicating who they feel is best for the
job. If men voted for the position, then (considering that the male voting population may be
larger than the female one) a Women’s Officer could be elected who does not have the majority
backing of female students. A situation cannot arise where male students choose who the
Women’s Officer should be; that choice should always be with the female students. Similarly,
it is not for men to decide who should be representing women’s interests in the
university. Put simply, the Women’s Officer should be who women think will be best for the
job, not who men think would be good as a Women’s Officer. What is more, the elected officer
must feel confident that she is the candidate that the female students wanted.

Political issues often cloud the debates surrounding the role of women’s officer,
especially in questions of whether it is right to have a post designed to promote equality in
the university that deliberately excludes a proportion of the student population from both
standing for and voting for the post. Yet we should look at the issue from a practical point
of view. We should acknowledge that what most women want from their Women’s Officer is
someone who they know will be committed to changing aspects of the university that still cause
female students problems and who they feel comfortable approaching with any welfare problem
that they have. It becomes clear that the only way to ensure this is to allow women alone to
vote for and stand for the role.



Email us at gender-agenda@cusu.cam.ac.uk