It is true that institutions such as Robert’s Rules of Order are inherently sexist, exclusivist and not conducive to consensus-building (which is the approach most often stereotypically associated with women). At the same time, Parliamentary procedure and Robert’s Rules seem to be here to stay and subject only to the slow, incremental reforms that will only happen if more women can access “the system.” The question is, then, how do we get more women into the system?
There are not a lot of women on the Students’ Administrative Council (SAC) for a reason, much as there are not a lot of women in Canadian politics of all levels, and awareness about this needs to be raised. If SAC is supposed to be a democratic institution, how is democracy encouraged therein when the rules and procedures used intimidate people by allowing a small group of participants— most often men—to stand up and scream at each other in order to somehow arrive at a decision? Is it truly democracy when the actions of just four people, who happened to be men, could hog the speaking space for the entire night, and put many important student issues at risk?
Recently, a Varsity letter writer expressed concerns about comments I had made in an article on this topic. Theresa Robinson claimed that I presumed “women don’t have the talents or skills to speak up for themselves.” This is not so. Clearly, there seems to be a misinterpretation of my comments as to why women felt excluded at the AGM, and in the political structure at U of T in general.
This debate is about the political structures that do exclude certain groups. Women—and I can assure you I spoke with many who were at the AGM—did feel excluded from the decision-making process. I felt excluded, and not because I’m “timid” or “less aggressive” but because I didn’t want to adopt the same behaviour as those four men, and I felt like I had no other choice but to retaliate with aggression and confrontation. Many factors—the arrangement of the room, the parliamentary back-and-forth style, the screaming and yelling—prevented people from participating, and this is fundamentally antithetical to democracy, which is meant to allow the active participation of all.
As a woman who is actively involved in student politics, I’ve pursued reform by exploring new ways to conduct my meetings—ways that are far more positive and inclusive. Hyper-parliamentary procedure and Robert’s Rules of Order is not the only way to conduct a meeting, believe it or not. It’s a structure that encourages aggressive behaviour, and, quite frankly, makes my stomach turn. My comments to the Varsity were meant to encourage a re-evaluation of how political decisions are made so that all groups can actively participate, and not just be subjected to the voices of a dominant few. In light of this, it’s too bad that Ms. Robinson felt I was stereotyping women as being “timid” and less talented than men.
I would argue instead that through our exclusion in many spheres, women have actually developed tremendous talents and different perspectives than men. Unfortunately, a different perspective, especially a more radical feminist one, isn’t always welcome in politics. As a woman in politics, do I want to simply fit into the structure or do I want to improve it? I choose the latter. That is why I’ve raised this concern, and I refuse to apologize.
Elizabeth Majic is the SAC Equity Commissioner. Her original comments appeared in an article on the SAC AGM by Kelly Holloway, published in the 25 March 2002 edition of the Varsity.