Do we need a women’s rights officer?
Chances are, you’re probably reading this at a lecture. If you can bear to tear your eyes away, have a look around you. Statistically, it’s likely that out of every ten people sitting in the lecture theatre six are women. Given that men are now a minority on campus, why do we still need a Women’s Rights Officer? Salient feature writer Nicola Kean finds out.
IN 1971, Vic students packed out a theatre to listen to the notorious feminist Germaine Greer speak. Thirty-five years later, the numbers of people attending events during VUWSA’s “Women’s Week” could be counted on one hand, or if organisers were lucky, maybe even two. Dropping participation in the Women’s Group is a trend that’s been happening for several years now, and it raises important questions about the relevance of the role of Women’s Rights Officer (WRO).
Gabrielle Stewart has a tough job on her hands. Elected WRO halfway through the year, she comes into the role following the so-called ‘Opiegate’ scandal that saw her predecessor booted off the exec. But psychic hot-lines are the least of her problems, having just been elected to a role that has been criticised as being a waste of time and money over the last few years.
“I was really apprehensive about taking on the role once I’d been elected,” she says. “For me, part of the reason why it might have been not so well run or not so accessible was because there was no job description.” Currently, the WRO’s official duties can be summed up in one sentence: to liaise with women’s groups both nationally and on campus. And to fulfil this brief, last year the portfolio was granted $18,000 to play around with. The year before, it was $11,000.
However, the money isn’t necessarily representative of the levels of interest at Vic. The popularity of the Vic Women’s Group has waxed and waned over the years. According to Stewart, the number of members of the Women’s Group stands at about 80, though not all members can make it to regular meetings because of other commitments. While she admits that 80 is not a high number considering the overall number of women on campus, she says the group has only recommenced over the past two months.
Stewart adds that having someone new in the role every year is problematic, as newbies are chucked in the deep end from the very beginning with little guidance about what or how to do things. “Hopefully”, she says, “I can create some sort of guideline over the next few years, it can become something that’s a lot more structured.”
For one half of Salient’s own “Brothers in Anarchy” Philip Whittington, however, past WROs have undermined the credibility of the position. “Given how bad the last one was”, he says “it kinda seems like a joke.”
For Whittington, the lack of interest in the role symbolises its redundancy. “I don’t know how a women’s rights officer would deal with sexual violence. I’d like to know what she proposes to do. I doubt there’s anything individually she can do, not to say that trying wouldn’t be a good thing. It’s the same for pay rates, I’m not sure what a Women’s Rights Officer would do either.”
“I doubt that a huge majority of women get any benefit out of the Women’s Rights Officer”, he adds “and I’m not sure that the people who do benefit wouldn’t have another avenue to get that benefit if the Women’s Rights Officer didn’t exist. Even if you think women are discriminated against, they’re not so oppressed that they have no ability to do anything to make any change because of that oppression.”
Things were very different when the women’s rights movement came to the fore in the 1960s and 1970s, and students’ associations across the country created WRO roles to address sexism within the tertiary education system. In 1973, the movement was given national co-ordination with a women’s position created within what was then the New Zealand University Student’s Association (NZUSA).
The positions were created at a time when women were in a minority – both within academic departments and in the student body. Now, however, it is men who are the minority at universities. A study published by Vic’s Institute of Policy Studies last year show that across the country, there were more than 75,000 more women enrolled at universities than men. On every single level of tertiary education, from certificates to post-graduate degrees, women outnumber men – a startling gender reversal in such a short period of time.
Despite this at least cosmetic sign of equality of the sexes on universities nationwide, NZUSA’s National Women’s Rights Officer (NWRO) Natalie Absalom maintains that there is still much to be done. “The reality is, it is going to be a long slow road. Yes, we are going to see the tide turning slowly, and perhaps the tide is turning, but we are not going to get to a position of equality any time soon. It may well be our daughter’s daughters who see that.”
“We go to university to be able to be employed in a career and earn good money,” she continues. “We’re still not seeing the same results from that, even though we’re achieving at a much higher rate in much vaster numbers. We simply are not seeing the results from the investment we put into our education.”
It’s a view that is endorsed by a recent report written for the United Nations by the National Council of Women. It argues that while women may be in some of New Zealand’s top jobs, there is still societal discrimination against women. The “sexist backlash”, as it was proclaimed by The Dominion Post, includes increased rates of domestic violence and anti-discrimination being dismissed as political correctness. The National Party’s Political Correctness Eradicator anyone?
For Stewart, these are some of the reasons why having a WRO position on the VUWSA exec is still necessary. “There is no foreseeable difference in employing women or men, but with all of that there is still a need for a women’s rights officer. It really is a representative role. I don’t really agree that women on campus are marginalised, but I do believe that they need representation. It’s not just about my personal opinions – it’s a voice for everybody.”
Students at Massey University in Palmerston North disagree. In 2005, following a review of executive positions, an Annual General Meeting voted to abolish the WRO position. Women’s issues have now been incorporated into the Welfare portfolio, and according to current president Paul Falloon there have been only a few complaints.
“It was definitely a popular move,” he says. “There wasn’t much dissension about it at all.” Falloon adds that the bid to remove the position was led by the two co-WROs, because they didn’t feel effective. “They felt there was a lack of work in terms of direct advocacy role in specific women’s issues, also found it was hard to engage in discussion with other women about it. They tried setting up discussion groups and that sort of thing, but students weren’t prepared to participate.”
However, Falloon says that removing the WRO position wasn’t an attempt at denying the existence of sexism. He believes that once our generation of women move into the work force, many of the imbalances will sort themselves out, and that’s an issue for society rather than one for students’ associations to deal with. “In terms of sexual assaults,” he adds “women are far more likely to be victims than males, but that’s a societal issue. It affects our members, but it’s not something that’s unique to our campus or unique to universities.”
Massey Palmerston North, however, is an exception to the rule. From her experience in liaising with WROs from the around the country, Absalom says that while there are WROs positions on every campus bar Massey Palmy, many students’ associations have broadened the role to address general gender issues.
For her, such a trend is not necessarily a positive move. “It’s a hard position to hold, just look at the flak that goes round to women who stand up for women. I feel that if you change it to a ‘gender equity’ role, perhaps it would weaken the role. Having said that, if the name is just being changed to appease the critics, then I guess that wouldn’t be a worry at all.”
A completely different situation has presented itself at the Wellington campus of Massey University. Phil Simpson, a first year communications student who says he plays rugby and is generally an average guy has, almost by accident, found himself to be the only Women’s Rights Officer in the country with a penis.
Simpson says he was convinced to give the position a go after he was inspired by a lecture about feminism. “I had a lecture in media studies and the teacher described what feminism is, and it influenced me. So when the opportunity arose, I put my hand up for the role.” The opportunity arose, so to speak, at the last Massey at Wellington Students’ Association (MAWSA) annual general meeting, when not one female nominated herself for the role.
“I suppose the reason why nobody else stood up is that they didn’t really see the need to have a women’s rep, but there is still discrimination,” says Simpson. “I suppose people confuse today’s feminism with older types of feminism – the bra burning and stuff like that. Today’s feminists are more different, they’re wanting to work with males.”
Absalom, in contrast, believes that the problem stems from student apathy. “One thing that Philip can’t know is what it’s like to wake up in the morning as a woman. But it’s better to have him in the role than no one. The thing that worries me is that why nobody else put their hand up in the first place. I think it’s student apathy and student stress.”
But, despite Simpson’s efforts, being a man in a woman’s world has caused him some grief. Aside from having all sorts of accusations regarding his sexuality thrown at him, there was a brief kerfuffle when he was barred from speaking at the latest NZUSA Women’s Conference. According to the rules of the conference, men are able to speak as long as no one objects – which one woman did.
Simpson says he was warned about the rules of the conference and chose to attend anyway. “I got told beforehand that something like that could happen, and I had the option of not going if I didn’t want to. I found it disappointing, I thought it was a bit old-fashioned – even though I did enjoy the conference.”
For Stewart, who was also at the conference, the issue has been over-hyped. “The rules are there for a reason, and if they want to be changed then there’s a way to change them. I feel really sorry for the woman who objected – she’s being alienated for her decision and being made to justify her decision, which she was in full right to make.”
She says that although she personally feels confident speaking openly in front of men, not all women feel the same way. “The conference itself was women’s conference, not women’s rights conference – half of it is really based on being a woman. Menstruation and stuff like that. That does put him at a real disadvantage.”
Simpson has decided he wants to try and change the rules so he can be included at the next conference, but he also wants to change the nature of his position – turning it into a gender officer role. He says there is scope for awareness raising work at Massey for both women and men – particularly around the issue of frequent sexual health checks.
Stewart agrees that changing the role, or broadening it to address gender and sexuality issues for everyone on campus, is unnecessary at Victoria. “I know that has worked in other places, but I personally think that the WRO works in with the Queer Rights Officer. So, I think the sexuality role is covered. We can still celebrate who we are as women.”
While there hasn’t recently been an attempt to remove the WRO position from the exec, in 2005 a men’s room was set up in the Union Building – but it wasn’t long before it was turned into storage space because of lack of use. However, Stewart isn’t opposed to the idea of having a Men’s Rights Officer working in tandem with a WRO. “If there’s a need for it, then absolutely. I’d also like to see a job description if a role was going to be created, just like with the women’s rights position.”
In contrast to an abortive attempt to have a Men’s Space, Stewart says the Women’s Room – down the corridor from the Salient office – is well used. “I am really surprised, every time I’ve been in there there’s been people in there.” With couches, a library and a free landline phone, she says it is designed to be a comfortable and warm place to relax between classes. “Where else can you find a couch at the university?”