In the past 5 terms, there have been 4 male presidents and only one female Louis Ashworth with permission for Varsity

“Women don’t want to spend precious time feeling like shit,” says one anonymous female member of the Cambridge Union when asked why more women don’t get involved. The self-proclaimed ‘world’s oldest debating society’ is no stranger to criticisms of this kind: another committee member tells me that she understands why the reputation of the Union is “elitist, male and privately educated".

The Union only opened its doors to female students as recently as the 1960s, and has since found it difficult to make up for lost time, with many of my interviewees complaining that they feel they are treated differently to their male counterparts.

Neha Pauly, the Union’s president elect for Easter term, will be the society's first female president since Michaelmas 2022. She recognises that women find it more difficult to “stand up for themselves” due to fears of being labelled “‘nasty’ or ‘arrogant’”. 

"Ultimately it is something that has to come from the women in the room"

Even when women do manage to break into the society, they are not granted equal status, according to Equalities Officer Elect Jess Spearman. Jess tells me that the role of Equalities Officer is a “safe seat” for women, explaining that “no matter what there’ll be one woman on standing [committee] because a woman will be equalities.” 

However, she also tells me that it is “a shame” the budget for this role is lower than that of Speakers and Debates Officers. “I would’ve found it difficult to say I had the experience for a role like Speakers or Debates,” she tells me, whereas men don’t feel they “necessarily need that experience, they can say ‘I haven’t done this, but vote for me anyway’.” 

But I am assured that there are people within the Union working hard to open doors previously closed to women. Esha Patel, the Union’s communications officer designate, is confident that initiatives such as “welfare hours, [and] hosting debates, panels and speakers that address the specific issues women face,” are having a hugely positive impact on how safe and valued the society’s female members feel. This attitude is reflected by statements from Alex Horan, who has previously filled the roles of welfare officer and secretary. For Alex, issues around inclusion are a natural consequence of living in a patriarchal society, and she believes that representation “is ultimately something that has to come from the women in the room [having the confidence] to speak.”

At times, my interviewees were outright at odds with one another. On whether or not complaints are taken seriously by the Union, Lauren Tucker, secretary for Lent 2024, says that “people will speak out about it and condemn a person for acting like that. So, [...] it is never accepted and is always rebuked.” However, when commenting on the same issue, another member describes feeling like her opinions weren’t welcomed by her male peers, and reports struggling “to speak up when you know it’ll fall on deaf ears.” 

The latter student (who has requested to remain anonymous) goes on to slam the Union’s lack of a formal complaints process, alleging that the society “has no way of dealing with misconduct unless it’s actually illegal. There are no bullying or harassment policies, or any impartial parties who can investigate these matters.”

"There are no bullying or harassment policies"

The Union has a lot of work to do with regard to ensuring the safety of its female members, Louise (not her real name) agrees. She acknowledges that the bar staff at the Union are trained to recognise Ask for Angela, and informs me that there are anti-spiking drinks covers available, but thinks that “they’re not promoted enough for people to know about them.” 

Louise goes on to say that she has been told by higher-ups at the Union that the lack of promotion of anti-spiking measures is a deliberate choice to avoid bad publicity, and tells me that she heard this justified by fears that “if they advertise that they have anti-spiking drinks covers, it will make people think that spiking is something that happens there.” 

On other occasions, though, the view of my interviewees is unanimous. Almost every woman I interviewed explicitly stated, or at least alluded to, experiences of slut-shaming in the Union and beyond. Alex tells me that people within the society, spurred on by other public student forums, accused her of “sleeping with half the committee in order to get places,” a sentiment echoed by several other anonymous interviewees.

The Union has come under fire in the past for inviting inflammatory speakers, such as gender critical feminist Kathleen Stock, and anti-abortion political commentator Ben Shapiro. I was curious to know what the women at the centre of the Union thought about how these invitations coincide with its  commitment to inclusivity.

For Neha, it’s all about balance: she emphasises her team’s dedication to creating a varied term card, with a “broad range of speakers.” She points to LGBTQ+ rights activists Sandi Toksvig and India Willoughby, who “spoke about her experiences being a trans woman in Britain,” as examples of invitees who counteract Ben Shapiro’s presence. 

"It'll take a culture shift"

Equalities Officer for Lent term, Anoushka Kale, agrees. She expresses that she understands why women “might feel like ‘this place is not for me’ if someone who has made overtly misogynistic comments speaks at the Union,” but concurs that this can be avoided by also inviting speakers who empower and uplift women. Anoushka voices her disappointment that there is “disproportionate attention given to certain names.” 


Mountain View

Neha Pauly wins Union presidency by narrow margin

Alex believes that inviting potentially inflammatory speakers is not only compatible with the goal of representation, but is in fact essential for it: “There are men with the mindsets of Shapiro and Peterson existing alongside us every single day [...] Acting like they do not exist is reckless.”

While these students see encouraging debate as the key to a more balanced Union, one former committee member told me that “it’ll take a culture shift” to address deeper inequalities. Such problems “start from the top,” she says, in a society which enables “blatant misogynists [to sit] in the chair,” and where things are “[let] slide because the person is your boss or your friend”.

A spokesperson for the Union told Varsity: "Misogyny has no place in our society," though they "acknowledge that the Union has historically been a male dominated space, and are committed to supporting women's participation". On the claims that their bullying and harassment policies aren't tight enough, the Union commented: "We have a clear policy for dealing with formal complaints outlined in the code of conduct laws of our constitution; this includes the provision that claims can be investigated by our independent Review Committee."

They continued: "We are an accredited Purple Flag venue and follow the Cambridge BID guidelines on spiking [...] Drink spiking covers are available from all bar staff, as advertised on posters throughout the building."