A position of power doesn’t feel all that empowering when a male colleague thinks it’s OK to call you sexy, or to make derogatory comments about your appearance. And yet, for many young women involved in student government, that’s the status quo they’re asked to deal with silently, says Concordia student Melissa Kate Wheeler, 25.
The former president of Montreal-based Concordia’s student union says sexist, racist and discriminatory language is all too common within student government—and she’s calling on its leaders to stamp it out.
“Throughout my time at Concordia, I witnessed what I thought was a pretty disrespectful, intolerant culture towards women and minorities. Basically anybody who wasn’t white and male had a more difficult time doing their jobs,” says the political science major, whose term as president has now expired.
Being called sexy and having her appearance publicly evaluated by her colleagues challenged her ability to lead. “It was an extra obstacle,” she says, “and it made it a lot more difficult for me to be effective.”
Wheeler isn’t the only woman to draw attention to what she believes is a widespread problem of offensive language in student-run organizations. Another female student politician from Concordia’s Arts and Science Federation of Associations (ASFA) recently lodged a complaint with the Quebec Human Rights Commission claiming she was the target of racist, misogynistic and sexually graphic insults from two fellow student executives.
The young woman, known only as Mei-Ling, filed the complaint after she says she discovered a sexually graphic and racist Facebook exchange about her that occurred between two male colleagues. (Both have subsequently been dismissed from their roles.)
In the wake of Mei-Ling’s complaint, Wheeler created the Facebook page Not Safe at Concordia, which aims to “destroy the toxic, sexist, racist environments of many Concordia student associations.”
“Once the Mei-Ling story broke,” she says, “I felt like there needed to be a multi-pronged approach to addressing the problem. I was worried that the dialogue would be focused around the details of her case instead of the reality that, unfortunately, Mei-Ling’s experience is rather common for people who go through student involvement, not just at Concordia but at any university.”
Not Safe at Concordia also provides a safe space for students to come forward with their own tales of harassment, sexual violence and discrimination on campus. Student survivors are encouraged to send their stories to a designated email account manned by Wheeler and Concordia’s Centre for Gender Advocacy. Response to the page has been largely favourable, she says, and she believes it has helped “galvanize a lot of students in mobilizing within ASFA to try and start revolutionizing the culture at that association.”
She notes that Concordia has since dismissed the two individuals who were at the heart of Mei-Ling’s case, and has brought in mandatory sensitivity workshops for all future ASFA leaders.
That’s not enough, though. Wheeler wants student leaders to decisively reject the notion that offensive and discriminatory language is acceptable or harmless. She believes that this could be achieved, in part, by creating an in-house code of conduct.
“I think the student groups themselves have to adopt some kind of internal policy outlining expectations of people who are working there and also outlining what happens if you cross the line,” she explains, noting that student leaders are in an excellent position to truly lead by example. “This is a group of people standing up and saying, ‘This isn’t OK, it’s never been OK, and now we’re going to actively create change.’”
Once implemented, an internal code of conduct represents a tangible and necessary investment in a healthy campus culture—a goal that isn’t up for debate. “This isn’t about finding a middle ground; this is about creating equality,” says Wheeler. “We’re not going to compromise on what that means.”
This story is part of #Project97 — a year-long conversation about sexual assault, abuse and harassment. Visit Project97.ca for more details on this collaborative project by Rogers-owned media outlets, and join us on Twitter with the hashtag #Project97.