07 May 2015 Politics

Solidarity is not a numbers game

Apparently, the University of Waterloo doesn’t know what it means to be an ally — but will gladly accept accolades and prestige for kind of thinking about it. Over the last few days, the UW administration has been trumpeting its partnership with HeForShe. It’s a worthy cause and a necessary approach to address systemic sexism, but I can’t find anything to suggest my alma mater is taking the campaign’s purpose seriously.

Launched last year, HeForShe is a great initiative run by UN Women. It recognizes that we need to change the conversation around feminism to engage men and boys, to recognize privilege and male-centredness in our societies, and for males to act in solidarity to dismantle the sexist norms embedded in our culture. It aims to get one billion pledges from men and boys around the world.

HeForShe is gaining steam, and UW has jumped on board as the only Canadian institution to take part in its IMPACT 10x10x10 pilot initiative — a fact it will repeat ad nauseum for the next little while. Good on UW for signal-boosting the excellent work of HeForShe, but I feel like it has missed the point.

In the section of the HeForShe website geared to universities, a helpful framework document is available, complete with action items that are tailored specifically to post-secondary institutions. There’s lots of good, succinct discussion about the problem HeForShe is trying to solve:

The achievement of gender equality requires an inclusive approach that recognizes the crucial role of men and boys as partners for women’s rights, and as having needs of their own in the formulation of that balance.


These principles build upon the agreed conclusions of the 48th Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women held in 2004, which urged that men and boys have a greater role and accountability in the achievement of gender equality. Despite this recognition, the enlisting of men and boys as equal partners in the crafting and implementing of a shared vision of gender equality is yet to be fully realized.

And the document also outlines what role universities should play:

Under the HeForShe IMPACT 10x10x10, UN Women will partner with at least 10 universities to mobilize university campuses to reshape the global discourse on gender equality. HeForShe IMPACT 10x10x10 will engage with universities at the administration and student level on gender sensitization and gender-based violence.

The suggested action items in HeForShe’s framework document touch on a bunch of great ways to bring the campaign to life on campus, including inspiring men on campus to join the campaign, addressing assault and misconduct, and training faculty and staff to build gender equality into their day-to-day roles.

However, when I look at UW’s commitments for the HeForShe campaign, It’s like reading another language. Despite the clear intent of HeForShe as a solidarity movement — one where men use their privilege to build upon and move with women’s struggle — UW’s commitments don’t engage men at all:

  1. Attract more female students in STEM programs
  2. Attract more female faculty members
  3. Attract more female leaders in senior academic and administrative positions

Do you notice a pattern? UW has clearly framed the fight against sexism as a pipeline problem — there aren’t enough women in the university, so let’s try to add more. Then we’ll eventually have gender parity and sexism will go away.

But structural sexism is more than just a numbers game. It’s also dangerous to conflate solidarity with numerical parity. And what surprises me most is how UW has erased all mention of social and cultural reform from its commitments. This puts the onus on women to fill the pipeline, and neatly avoids confronting men in positions of privilege.

So what happens when women are encouraged to fill the pipeline in an environment that remains hostile to them? Consider this observation from a UW student on what it’s like to be a woman in the Computer Science program:

There can only be one of us in a group of men, and we need to be exceptional. This is an incredibly limiting and unfulfilling role for women to play in CS. Many of us can’t or don’t want to handle the attendant social and academic pressures, so we end up switching programs or dropping out of school.

From Exclusion and Exceptionality in the Pipeline, by Julia Nguyen

So, yes. I’m disappointed and cynical about UW’s approach to the HeForShe campaign. That said, there is some work being done to foster male allies in the broader university community.

The Sigma Chi fraternity released a video last fall urging men to “Break the Silence” around sexual violence and rape culture. It was in the local news cycle for a few days, and laid down a much-needed challenge:

We are shifting our culture by changing ourselves, so we can influence our communities. And through this video, we want you to do the same.

A little further afield, McMaster University recently announced that it would increase the salaries of female faculty to correct a systemic pay gap. This is a great example of a university recognizing injustice and moving swiftly to rectify a structural bias.

Through HeForShe, UW could show some real leadership as an institution and engage men to act in solidarity against deeply-rooted sexism. Instead, it plans to just increase the number of women coming through its doors. Without more robust commitments, the university’s intentions fall flat.

This isn’t to say HeForShe can’t succeed at UW; if you’re a student there, sign the pledge on your own. Join the movement and make your own commitments. The university’s engagement has been lukewarm so far, but don’t let that stop you from doing better.

Sam Nabi


Gerry Oxford 8 May 2015, 14:31

Nice article, Sam. I agree, UW’s approach is to give women the “opportunity” to resolve things on their own. Nice and easy…

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