Merit vs fair representation is a false dichotomy

Today, NUS UK is debating a motion to introduce quotas for women on student union delegations to national conference, and within a number of the bodies elected by the national conference. There is information from the pro-campaign here

I’m not at the conference, but delegates I know opposing the motion seem to be framing it as ‘merit’ vs ‘equality’. I’ve just written a long post on Facebook about why I don’t think measures to address women’s under-representation are anti-meritocratic, and as I’ve now written versions of it a couple of time, I thought I’d post a version here for more general consumption.


Framing the debate on the introduction of quotas for women within NUS UK as ‘merit’ versus ‘equality’ is a false dichotomy.

A ballot elects the nominated candidate who receives the most votes. On the other hand, merit selection processes should consider the knowledge and skills of a candidate against those required by the position. However, research shows that even merit processes often fall short of being gender and race blind.

I’m confident our campus student population includes a number of women who have the skills and knowledge to be excellent members of the voting delegation. So, the complete absence of women from the voting delegation either this year, or last, isn’t a question of merit. It’s about something far more complicated – the role and status of women in our communities.

A recent (US) study identified five factors that contribute to college age women being less likely than college age men to even think about running for public office.

  1. Young men are more likely than young women to be socialized by their parents to think about politics as a career path.
  2. From their school experiences to their peer associations to their media habits, young women tend to be exposed to less political information and discussion than do young men.
  3. Young men are more likely than young women to have played organized sports and care about winning.
  4. Young women are less likely than young men to receive encouragement to run for office—from anyone.
  5. Young women are less likely than young men to think they will be qualified to run for office, even once they are established in their careers.

Thanks to the Women & Public Policy Program at the Harvard Kennedy School for sharing the research. There is a short write up of the research here (and the five factors summary is the Boston Magazine’s) and the short article links through to the full study.

NUS UK introducing quotas for women’s will not address all of the complicated issues that underpin women’s under-representation in civil society. However, it will create a powerful pull factor to keep student unions focused on ensuring that qualified women candidates run, because student union’s will not want to send delegates to NUS who lack the skills to represent their students. 

Yes, there are some student unions, including ours, who might do work on this issue without the fair representation measure, but student unions are busy places and the fair representation requirement will help to ensure that addressing women’s under-representation in student unions remains a focus of our work.


From a grateful student – following the note taking advice of the blogosphere

As I start to hand in the first essays for the coursework in my Phd, I wanted to acknowledge the incredible wealth of advice and support that there is for Phd students on twitter and the internet.

There is a lot of discussion about how Phd students should engage with social media to build networks and promote their research. There is also a ready recognition that social media can help ease what we keep being told can be a lonely and difficult road. It’s the discussion on #phdchat that has really encouraged me to start this blog, and the internet/twitter are also amazing sources for advice on how to do the nuts and blots of Phd work.

I’m particularly grateful for two tweets: the first a guest post by Dr Katherine Firth on the ThesisWhisperer website Turn Your Notes into Writing Using the Cornell Method and the second a post by Pat Thomson on the Patter website Beginning the Literature Review – taking notes.

Somewhere between the two posts I’ve ended up with a really useful template for structuring my notes, and realised that if, rather than just noting individual thoughts and quotes, I write paragraphs in my own voice that reflect on and engage with the text, I have draft words for my literature review, or my current essay project.

This may not sound particularly revolutionary, but imagine my pleasure when I opened up the word doc for my first essay and discovered nearly 4000 words, significantly more than the 2500 needed. As I’d been pasting the words from my notes, into the word doc under the headings of my essay outline, it already had a rough structure. What I now had to do was re-write, edit and fill in gaps. A much easier task than starting with a blank page, trying to remember where everything I’d read was.

It is probably not a perfect system. Re-reading what I’d written I noticed that there were several ideas that kept being triggered by the writing that I’d captured several times. But the repetition probably demonstrates questions or issues that are important for me to note or resolve, and it was good to see how later work picked up earlier readings and had become more integrated text.

Anyway I’ve nearly 10 000 words due between January 21 and February 15, and while I’ve still got a lot to read and write, I’m at least temporarily happy with my process around note taking and turning that into writing.