The Union’s Diversity Problem

The Cambridge Union has a diversity problem. Rather, it has several diversity problems. It doesn’t have enough female speakers. It doesn’t have enough speakers of colour. It doesn’t have enough speakers from underprivileged backgrounds. It doesn’t have enough speakers from the left. I could go on, but you likely get the picture: the demographics at Union events, term after term, are skewed in favour of moderate or right-wing middle-class white men.

I’m going to talk about the Cambridge Union because that’s the one I had the privilege of being in charge of for a fleeting six months, but I would imagine that the majority of my observations are reasonably salient for the Oxford Union, or any large society which hosts speakers and/or debates on a regular basis.

The diversity problem operates in different ways for debate speakers and individual speakers, so I’ll talk about them in turn.

With regard to debates, the first problem is that there are fewer women and people of colour in positions of influence than there are men. This means that, at the base level, there are usually fewer women whom we are able to invite than there are men. Researching speakers for debates is a surprisingly difficult process – you’d be surprised how quickly you run out of names to invite for any given topic. Quick, tell me who I should invite for a debate about atheism – let me guess: Richard Dawkins, Rowan Williams, Justin Welby, AC Grayling, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Tariq Ramadan, Peter Hitchens? Maybe a couple more. Any women? Maybe one or two, but they’re hardly the first names that come to mind. What if I told you that you’d be incredibly lucky if even one name on that list said yes, and you have to get six speakers, and you still personally have two or three more debates to fill? It’s hard.

Then there’s the fact that, in my experience, women are far less likely than men to say yes to an invitation. This is conjecture, but I would wager that it’s partly because women are less willing to speak in public, for reasons that can be summed up as ‘patriarchy’; it’s partly because women are less willing to engage in the adversarial activity of debating – patriarchy again; and it’s also because the women who are famous enough in any given field tend to get invited to quite a lot of stuff (because there are so few of them, and lots of places all have the same idea) and they obviously have limited time and energy and willingness to engage with snotty students.

Left wing speakers are also less likely to say yes to invitations than right wing speakers. This might sound like an odd one, but it’s not if you think about it. In 2013, Owen Jones publicly rejected his invitation to the Cambridge Union after they invited Marine Le Pen to speak – the Union is perceived as a bastion of privilege and conservatism, and the more right wing speakers who come, the harder it is to get lefties to speak. There are also fewer viable left-wing speakers, full stop – believe me, they are genuinely just really hard to find these days.

With regard to people of colour, Cambridge is an incredibly white institution, and whilst in many instances there are people of colour saying the same things on the same topics just as well as (or indeed better than) white people, one of the problems is that the majority of the people in our social network, and the majority of the people whom we think to invite, are white. The voices of non-white people in Britain tend to be, if not silenced, at least ignored or dampened in favour of white voices.

This isn’t a reflection on the committee of the Union – they’re a diverse bunch, from left to right, fairly well gender balanced (though this varies from term to term), and often with a relatively high diversity of socioeconomic and racial background. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just a bunch of privileged white guys sitting in a room deciding to invite other privileged white guys to speak. The people who run the Union really care about its reputation, about its image, about the quality of events that they put on, and a large percentage of them are committed to improving the diversity of backgrounds from which speakers come. They organise events which specifically hope to attract speakers from backgrounds which aren’t white, Oxbridge-educated and male. These events almost invariably suffer from poor turnout.

The problem is, and this leads into the section on individual speakers, that the Union has a limited budget, limited time and limited student attendance. On any given night in Cambridge, there are half a dozen great events going on, and those events have to compete not only with each other but with the pulls of sport, the theatre, work and drinking. This severely limits the capacity of the Union to put on events with speakers whom they can’t guarantee will pull a crowd. In my term we hosted a large number of events like this, and the few people who came really enjoyed them, but it was time consuming and incredibly stressful – every single one was a last minute scrabble around to attempt to get people to come and make the room not look empty so that the speaker wouldn’t be embarrassed or angry. Small societies with dedicated memberships can afford to host a relatively unknown MP with an interesting idea, because they have a smaller room (I know it’s strange, but it’s a genuine factor), they often have a budget to provide food and drink to attendees because they host fewer events, they have the time to negotiate with individual speakers exactly what they want to talk about rather than just rushing to put the event logistics together, and they don’t have the reputation of the Union to live up to – when speakers come to the Union, they often see it as quite a big deal and expect a good turnout. As much as we’d love for a huge crowd to come to every single event, it just doesn’t happen, and wishing it would won’t make it happen.

When Julian Assange was invited for the second time to speak at the Cambridge Union, the argument from the Women’s Campaign was that rape survivors don’t get such a prestigious platform, and the Union should invite a rape survivor to come and speak about their experiences. The problem is that such an event would be, whilst doubtless interesting and moving and socially worthwhile, really poorly attended. Ultimately the Union committee has a responsibility to respond to the demands of its members, but it has an extremely disengaged and, dare I say it, apathetic membership. Most people don’t care about what the Union does as long as there’s at least one interesting debate each term and a headline speaker they’ve heard of. I’m not sure anything can really be done to change that – I certainly didn’t manage it.

In recent terms the Union committee have become conscious of the diversity problems and have worked hard to rectify them. The tracker used for inviting speakers has a gender column which is used to keep track of the gender ratio of speakers, and days of invitations are allocated specifically to inviting solely women. This term, the Debates Committee (responsible, oddly enough, for organising debates) spent their first three weeks inviting only women. There are regularly debates on feminist issues, now usually framed not as ‘is feminism good or bad?’, but as ‘what should we do about x issue which is relevant to feminism?’. When I was President, if there was a debate which was becoming male dominated I would attempt to make sure that the last spot/s went to female speakers, and this term there are no all-male debates and they’ve implemented the same policy as I did. It all sounds terribly like positive discrimination, and frankly it is, and I’m proud of that. I’m proud that the people running one of Cambridge’s most important institutions, a notoriously conservative one at that, are developing the social conscience required to make them (or, indeed, us) take steps to rectify the wrongs perpetuated by uneven societal power structures.

It’s not much. There are still huge problems with diversity at the Union. But there are people inside, doing their level best to change it, a little bit at a time.


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