Friday, November 24th, 2017

Student Senate acknowledges lack of gender diversity

Posted on October 23, 2017 in News
By USM Free Press

Jess Ward

Leading a discussion on Senate affairs and public relations, a woman stands in front of a seated crowd of men who are aptly listening and debating the issues at hand. The presence in the room is overwhelmingly male, but Muna Adan, Chair of the Student Senate, speaks with clear authority and confidence in her mission.

In the current political atmosphere within the United States, one is often hard-pressed to find a political space or forum in which women are the majority. In most cases, women are not even represented in equal numbers; according to Bloomberg, The Trump administration fills a mere 27 percent of its positions with women. This level of male-centered rhetoric is mirrored in the much smaller student Senate here at USM, with 13 of the 15 appointed Senators being men. Adan serves as this year’s Chair, joined by Senator Nairus Abdullahi as the only two female representatives.

Despite the seven “Vacant” positions listed on the Student Government Association (SGA) webpage, there is currently minimal interest on behalf of students to join the Senate. Adan states that “Joshua Blake [Clerk] has been doing a great job at […] reaching out to different people, and reaching out to different organizations.” However, it appears as though these efforts, no matter how sincere, have not been effective.

The question remains: why does this year’s Senate feature such a stark difference between appointed male and female senators? Senator Chase Hewitt, who joined the SGA this fall, thinks it is “possible that less women feel comfortable being members of the Senate,” and says the discrepancy could “alienate a good portion of the student body.”

Senator Aaron Pierce, Student Public Relations Committee Chair, says he “believes in diversity, and the fact that we [the Senate] don’t have that, that’s a little disappointing to me [Pierce].” He mentions some of the incidents from last year as a potential reason for women not wanting to participate this year, but wishes there was a stronger female perspective in the SGA.

“There’s some things men don’t know about, like women [focused] issues,” says Pierce.

Senator Shaman Kirkland, who has been involved in the Senate since the beginning of 2017, says “that there’s less women that are interested in politics, or that women for some reason don’t feel as welcome in the Senate.”

The idea that women are not as likely to seek involvement in political activities seems like an easy answer to a complicated question, and an answer that does not explain the absence of adequate female representation.

The events both Pierce and Kirkland cite as potential reasons for decreased participation from women revolve around last year’s SGA Chair, who reportedly told the Senate that Muslim women cannot be feminists.. Kirkland says comments like these are “obviously going to offend a lot of Muslim women,” which could contribute to the reluctance female students have felt about joining the Senate.

Adan insists that the events of last year have not affected her decision to stay in the Senate. Her role as a leader within the SGA has had a clear impact on this year’s Senate, and according to Pierce, Adan is “a strong leader […] and woman. She makes her point clear, and she doesn’t let anyone walk over her.”

“It says something,” Adan notes, “beyond me just being a woman, but being Black and Muslim, it says something about the progression with the Student Senate.”

Neither Adan nor Abdullahi feel they have been unfairly treated, although Adan says that sometimes “I say it a thousand times and the other person doesn’t necessarily care, and if a guy says it then it’s taken.” She goes on to insist that this is not a specific problem with the Senate; rather, it is something she experiences a lot of “in everyday general life.”

This dynamic between men and women in professional settings has not hindered Adan or Abdullahi, who are both successful members of the SGA. Rather, as Abdullahi states, “I do feel outnumbered in the sense that I know there are more male voices, but I don’t feel like my input doesn’t matter.”

Adan says her male counterparts treat her with the “same respect as they do their male peers,” and that the feeling of being outnumbered stems purely from the fact that there are less women in the room, not from discrimination or sexism on behalf of the Senate.

Abdullahi and Adan believe the issue at hand is not that the Senate turns away female students, or that the SGA is an unsafe space for women to use their voice; rather, Adan says this is one of the most diverse Senates in USM history, and that the lack of female voice is a coincidence.

While there is no clear solution to this lack of representation, the SGA is working towards recruiting new members, and encourages students to investigate their political interests further through the Senate.

“It would be a great opportunity for women to get into leadership positions,” states Senator Hewitt, “I think it’s something that should be brought up within the Senate.”

Students interested in joining the Student Senate can find resources available in the SGA Office, in Woodbury, or contact the Senate at usm.studentsenate@maine.edu.