Representation, Equity, and the AMS Hard-On for Patriarchy
In this year’s election, of the 21 candidates running for the AMS Executive and Board of Governors, only three candidates are women (representing 14% of all candidates). There are more joke candidates than there are female candidates in this election (and no, they aren’t the same, you sexist pig). In the previous AMS election, VP External Stefanie Ratjen was the only woman elected to the 2008/09 AMS Executive. Despite its claim as a democratic and representative organization, clearly the AMS fails to ensure equality of opportunity and does not reflect the UBC student body. The absence of female candidates within AMS elections – let alone female representation within the AMS Executive and Council – indicates systemic barriers that have yet to be addressed by the AMS itself.
In seeking to make visible the masculinzation of AMS elections, we’ve focused this article around issues of gender and the AMS. At the same time, we must recognize that in all of its capacities, the AMS is not only gendered, but also disctinctly racialized, (hetero)sexualized, and oriented around countless other social identities such as nationality, language, class, ability, age, and family status. An analysis of the relationship between these categories of social identity and the AMS is a complex and valuable project requiring multiple political-theoretical lenses and continued consideration.
In considering gender and the AMS, a fundamental concern is the homogeneity of AMS electoral candidates. Why is it that students who seek election to the AMS Executive and AMS Council are overwhelmingly men? In what ways do women contribute to the functioning of the AMS? To begin to address these questions, we must examine issues surrounding AMS structure and climate that differentially affect students’ decisions to become active in student politics and the AMS.
The very structure of the AMS – segregating AMS Council, Services, and Resource Groups – creates a problematic and erroneous distinction between student politics, student services, and student activism. In creating these distinctions, the AMS Executive/Council positions itself as the legitimate sphere of student politics, apoliticizing essential Student Services and out-sourcing activism to the Resource Groups. As such, the Student Services and Resource Groups occupy a limited space within the political discourse of the AMS Council, dismissed as purely administrative or bureaucratic concerns.
Within this context, each area of the AMS is distinctly gendered. It’s no coincidence that the Student Services is the only area of the AMS that is predominantly coordinated by women (in 2008/09, the Executive Coordinator of Student Services (ECSS) as well as each of the eight Service Coordinators are female). The ECSS and all Service Coordinators are hired, not elected. The Services provide students with essential support that is otherwise not provided by the University. Services like Safewalk, Sexual Assault Support Centre (SASC), Speakeasy, and the AMS Foodbank have a direct and significant impact on student experiences at UBC. Given their relation to power structures within the AMS, the University, and beyond as well as their importance to the lived experiences of countless students, it is inconsistent that the Student Services do no occupy a more politicized or valorized space within the AMS. In this light, the feminization of the Services and the masculinization of the AMS Executive/Council reflects broader social expectations of women as nurturers, mental/emotional supporters and community builders; as apolitical figures, performing invisible work to sustain the ‘real’ politics of their male counterparts; and the subsequent devaluation of women’s work.
The lack of AMS representation and advocacy for women can act as both a serious disincentive as well as a reason to seek election. The internal dynamics of the AMS – encompassing profound inequities relating not only to gender but also to race, class, ability, and other social identities – produce a “student union” which systemically privileges dominant interests. Rather than empower students, the AMS reproduces social inequities and fails to address issues that resonate with students’ multiple and diverse experiences. For students who do not see their interests and experiences reflected in governance structures like the AMS Executive/Council, engagement with the AMS can feel both ineffective and hypocritical.
We conclude not by merely encouraging women to become involved with AMS electoral politics, which would simplify and obscure the pervasive issues of exclusion and accessibility; to do so would also continue the valorization of the male dominated ‘political’ realm over other areas of the AMS, in which women are already engaged in meaningful and empowering work. Rather, we call for a serious and long-overdue examination of the systemic barriers within the AMS, affecting not only women but also other marginalized groups, as well as a subversion of the artificial distinctions between student politics, services, and activism.