• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Sexism at Glasgow University - a minority of idiots or an ugly tradition?

FEW students were surprised by the allegations of sexist heckling of two female guest speakers at Glasgow University Union's annual Ancients Debating Championship last week.

Above, students at Friday's rally. Top left, female students have reported other instances of sexist behaviour at GUU  Photographs: Colin Templeton
Above, students at Friday's rally. Top left, female students have reported other instances of sexist behaviour at GUU Photographs: Colin Templeton

But over recent days, there has been a recounting of a litany of even more distressing tales of harassment.

Two members of the GUU are now facing a disciplinary hearing over the alleged sexist heckling of Rebecca Meredith and Marlena Valles, which shocked and appalled the wider community. Such was the anger on campus that a rally was staged against misogyny at the university on Friday, with around 200 marching. Sarah Kilday, organiser of the rally, said: "I think one of the things that was most shocking thing about this is that, for so many students here, it wasn't shocking. For the GUU themselves, it was 'to be expected'."

The alleged sexist insults hurled at Meredith and Valles appears to be another incident in a long line of chauvinistic behaviour by members of the GUU. Anger has been directed towards the GUU Board for not dealing with these members appropriately.

The GUU was originally set up as the men's union, while women had the separate Queen Margaret Union. With the passing of the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975, both unions were under pressure to admit members of the opposite sex. QMU did so in 1979, the GUU in 1980 – but despite pressure from university management, 139 members voted against allowing women to join the GUU.

The 139 Club was later formed, an "exclusive gentleman's club" named in honour of the 139 recalcitrant members. The club held dinners on the anniversary of the vote to celebrate these members. The dinners were only banned from being held on campus in 2011.

Other longstanding traditions at the GUU include initiation procedures which are rumoured to involve male members having to strip naked and stand outside the union for a period of time. The week before Daft Friday, the night of the GUU Christmas Ball, it is tradition for the union president to be stripped nearly naked, placed on a trolley and left outside the QMU building.

Reports of women feeling they have been victimised at the union suggest some attitudes have changed little since 1980. Siobhan Barrett-Gostelow recalls being harassed repeatedly when attending Hive – the GUU nightclub – in the past.

She told the Sunday Herald: "The weekend before Fresher's 2012, I was at the Hive with two of my friends and a man approached me. He tried to kiss me. I said, 'No' and told him that I was a lesbian and I simply wasn't interested. He then responded by forcefully pushing me backwards into a crowd. This behaviour is totally intolerable."

She said she's lost count of the times "in which my female friends and I have experienced groping from thick, sleazy GUU f***wits. It always ruined our night and made us incredibly uncomfortable."

Barrett-Gostelow said she had been warned about this type of behaviour from her family before attending Glasgow University, adding: "This is an example of how long this problem has been going on for."

In 2002, a GUU publication infamously contained these words: "No means yes, and yes means harder." In 2004, the university newspaper Glasgow Guardian exposed how the GUU used its funds to purchase pay-per-view pornography for its members. The Hetherington Occupation of 2011 at Glasgow University, a lengthy sit-in protest about higher education funding cuts, was marred by GUU members running around the building naked. Just this academic year, yet another celebratory LAMB dinner was held – LAMB stands for Last All-Male Board. And then, of course, we now have "debategate".

The experiences of Meredith, Valles and Barrett-Gostelow are not unique. Another student, Louise McTavish, says she was repeatedly groped when she was at the Hive nightclub during her first year.

She said: "I only went to the Hive three times, but each time while at the bar, guys would stand behind me, grope my bum and run away before I could turn around and see who it was. I also had an extremely drunk guy talking to me while I was at the bar, and it took me a while to realise that while he was talking to me, he actually had his penis out and was peeing all over the floor."

Cat Watt is wearied by the constant sexist jokes. She said: "I think the 'lad culture' is really sexist, yet it is taken as 'banter'. Jokes about sexism are not OK and I have felt the victim of those kind of jokes before."

And Emily Grenfell said she stopped going to the GUU after feeling uncomfortable there. She said: "In first year, I was there a lot and it was such a 'lads' atmosphere, such a 'jock' haven, that I just didn't fit in."

"Debategate" has also sparked off social media conversations and events, including the "Everyday Sexism at GUU" Facebook page, which allows people to anonymously post their experiences of sexism.

However, many female students at Glasgow University say that this kind of behaviour is not common and for the most part, women find campus life to be safe and enjoyable. Lena Mertens, a female student in the male-dominated physics department, said: "I've not had any sexist comments in my four years in physics. I believe that this misogyny thing is not a university-wide issue."

The women who created the "Reform the GUU" event Facebook page, which now has more than 850 members, agreed that Glasgow University in general does not harbour sexist tendencies. One organiser, Susannah Fitzgerald, said: "We personally have never been subject to sexist behaviour at the GUU or Glasgow University and fully believe that it is the attitude of a minority creating a problem for the majority. We think Glasgow University is a great place to study.

"We hope the issue is remedied as soon as possible, that action is taken to prevent anything like this happening again and that the university as a whole does not suffer from a sexist reputation it does not deserve."

The university is to investigate the "debategate" incident. Any students found to have breached the university code of conduct will be disciplined accordingly.

Contextual targeting label: 
Block list

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

145348