University societies have long provided like-minded students with a second family on campus, as well as skills and experience that stand us in good stead for future careers. A huge number of us will get involved in a society of some description during our time at university. But are we all benefitting equally from this involvement?
As the first female manager of Edinburgh’s student radio station in seven years, I’m acutely aware of the impact my gender has on my experience of the role. I’ve had presumptuous emails which address me as “Sir” and questions of where the “actual” manager is. My experiences as a woman in authority reflect those of women in workplaces across the country, but does the broader societies structure do the same?
With a student union boasting the most societies of any in the UK, according to EUSA president Hugh Murdoch, Edinburgh University seems like a good place to find out. Our students’ association operates no gender-auditing for society committees but does ask that office-bearers – president, treasurer and secretary – of all registered societies are listed online. By cross-checking this information with society members, I was able to put together a bigger picture of women’s representation across the 254 groups.
At first glance that picture looks good, with women making up 53% of office-bearers in line with their contribution to the wider student body. But a closer look at the data reveals the gendered nature of society management, with women running traditionally “feminine” groups, compared to their male counterparts’ roles in areas where women are widely underrepresented.
Groups run predominantly by women paint a very stereotypical picture of our interests, with charities, dance and craft societies totting up a larger number of female office-bearers than any other sector – 80%, 77% and 83% respectively.
Christina Muller, a fourth year member of the sociology society, says: “We’re brought up with the notion that intelligence is gendered; boys are expected to be academically intelligent and confident while girls are taught creative and emotional intelligence, that our purpose is as caregivers. I can see why people’s values and interests would reflect that.”
Indeed, despite a majority of female students overall, 60% of all office-bearers in academic societies are men, a figure which jumps to 72% when looking at scientific subjects specifically. Almost one third of all political groups, and 100% of all football appreciation clubs, registered no women at all on their committees.
A female secretary of a media society, who wishes to be known only by her first name Lily, says: “It worries me that I won’t have the same experience on my CV as the boys in my classes.
“Everyone talks about extra-curricular activities making you stand out from the crowd, but I’ve definitely lost elections to a less capable man in the past. We naturally see men as more authoritative. I’m not shy or quiet but I probably could look it standing next to a big tough guy.”
Office-bearer statistics represent only the “executive boards” of societies, but across bigger committees the story seems much the same. Society members I spoke to from a range of sectors reported women occupying traditionally feminine fundraising and administration roles, while their male colleagues filled management, finance and technical positions perceived as more difficult and important.
Many women described doubting their chances of gaining a “masculine” role against a male competitor, and their expectations that their abilities would be questioned should they manage to do so.
But it isn’t all bad. Anya O’Shea, chair of Edinburgh’s Labour Students, speaks for many in identifying the slow change happening on committees: “Struggles I had at the start of my term have definitely calmed down now, and I know that seeing me running the society has got more women involved.”
Still, in the age of unpaid internships and an apparently impenetrable pay gap, the politics of university societies make for sobering reading. Women make up the majority of our student population and are achieving great things inside the exam hall, yet outside of it we’re pushing them into the same – presumably pink, pretty and caring – boxes that existed long before they were even permitted to attend universities.
I’m incredibly grateful that I’ve worked my way to the top of a fantastic society in the male-dominated media industry, and my time at the station has enriched my student experience immeasurably. However, we owe this to all women and not just a select few.
Because not only does the glass ceiling still exist, but female students are bumping their heads on it before they’ve even donned a graduation gown.