The DoubleTree Hilton, where CUCA held their chairman’s dinnerHarry Curtis

The outgoing Women’s Officer of the Cambridge University Conservative Association (CUCA), Eleanor Costello, has condemned the group for its “aggressive sexism” and claims that she “faced open ridicule” in her role.

Speaking to Varsity, Costello argued that there “was a significant barrier to making any change within the association” and that there was a “pervasive idea that actively encouraging diversity [within CUCA] was somehow left-wing and discriminatory”. Varsity previously reported on the introduction of a Women’s Officer, which was unanimously approved in March 2016 after then Chairman, Samuel Carr, received “complaints about the society’s openness to women”.

Costello, who was elected to the position at the beginning of Easter Term told Varsity that she was initially optimistic because the “situation was so bad that things could only improve”. However, she outlined that the role of ‘Women’s Officer’ was never properly instituted by CUCA: “The constitution was not changed. I wasn’t actually a ‘Women’s Officer’... I couldn’t vote on any decisions in meetings. I couldn’t even vote for my own proposals.”

CUCA told Varsity that part of the Women’s Officer’s role was to “inform us of any complaints she received so that we could more promptly act on them”, adding that “no formal representations were ever made by the Women’s Officer during her term on committee.”

At the termly general meeting at which Costello was appointed, she claimed that her suggestion that CUCA members bring female friends to events “faced open ridicule”. She added: “It reached me later that a committee member had publicly denounced my role as pointless”. When Costello sought redress against the “member in question […] I was told that this was simply not possible”.

CUCA, speaking to Varsity, stated that opposition to the role “was largely aimed at the creation of a fully elected position” due to “concern that female members would feel pigeonholed into this position”. Additionally, an anonymous CUCA member, speaking to Varsity, said: “As far as I am aware the committee member in question has renounced those views in numerous conversations. However, this is an opinion that still holds some prevalence and remains an issue CUCA needs to deal with.”

Costello also told Varsity of the exclusion she experienced: “I was consistently ignored by the majority of male attendees at events”, she says. “In fact, there are several committee members whom I have never spoken to... they politely but firmly pretended that I was not there.”

Costello also alleged that, during a discussion of whether to appoint a female Vice-President, a committee member stated that it would be “nothing but tokenism and appointing a female for the sake of it, which serves no meaningful purpose”.

Varsity also contacted former Communications and Publicity Officer Sarah Cooper-Lesadd, who said: “From the moment I was elected, I feel that I have been undermined and in committee meetings I have been constantly talked over by men. I have been actively ignored by a number of members.

“At a committee dinner last term, the two women were sat on their own at the end of the table. There was another dinner that one of the committee held at Churchill; I was the only elected member who wasn’t invited.”

Responding to these allegations, CUCA claimed that “at no point was any formal complaint made to the Chairman or Senior Treasurer”, and called for “further details” to investigate the issue. They added that CUCA’s new committee had “recently approved a formal Complaints Procedure” to create “channels for complaint” that are “clear”.

For Costello, the “final straw” was at last week’s Chairman’s dinner. Costello told Varsity the atmosphere at the event was “shockingly raucous” and that “there was shouting, glasses were smashed and there was a lot of loud thumping on the tables.” She added that: “A large group stood to sing the national anthem, followed by ‘Jerusalem’ and then ‘I Vow to Thee, My Country’. The sound was deafening and many people in the room were visibly cringing.”

An anonymous committee member told Varsity that these members “were very loud, intimating and made people uncomfortable. I feel people were put off CUCA as a society because of it. I don’t feel that these individuals represent CUCA as a whole, but they do represent a powerful contingent within it.

“I feel bad for the Chairman who worked so hard for this event and who was clearly upset because it was spoiled by them.”

Another attendee anonymously told Varsity: “It got very out of hand very quickly because people just got way too drunk... I know there were many people who were really overwhelmed and upset by what happened. I certainly hope CUCA can help itself and change for the better.”

Costello also said that after the dinner a former committee member made sexist and derogatory remarks directly towards her that left her “in tears”, and “no one stepped in, or said anything as I left.”

Responding to this incident, CUCA told Varsity: “CUCA cannot and will not tolerate any abusive behaviour against any member at events which are designed to be enjoyed by everybody.

“These comments were made by a private individual in a private capacity and do not reflect on CUCA is any way. The member in question has been banned from attending future events as a result of this conduct.” When this response was presented to Costello by Varsity, she said that CUCA had not responded to her directly concerning her complaint.

Costello was clear as to how she thought the alleged problem could be tackled, telling Varsity: “It has been made clear to me that the only way to confront aggressive sexism is with aggressive change.” She added that there was a need for a properly elected Women’s Officer with real powers and for “openly sexist” members to be “expelled from the organisation”.

“It is not acceptable for women, in 2016, to face this treatment. To be frank, I do not care about tokenism, or ‘having a woman for the sake of it’. I care about making women feel like people. I have failed in my role as Women’s Officer. This term I was on a committee of nine men and five women. I leave to a committee of eight men and two women.”

Responding to Costello’s claims, the Cambridge University Conservative Association told Varsity that they “refute” claims of being opposed to diversity “wholeheartedly” and that “we have recently offered Vice Presidencies to two female politicians of stature [and their] first two preferences for new Senior Treasurer were both female.” They added: “The Easter Committee was the most diverse in recent CUCA history, with 42 per cent of the committee being women”.

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