'They expected me to have sex with them'
The incoming vice-president for FE at the National Union of Students has hit out at "dozens" of incidents of sexual harassment involving the student movement since she was elected to the role last month.
Toni Pearce, who previously led Cornwall College's students' union for two years, described a culture where sexual harassment was dismissed as "banter" and which she said discouraged women from taking a more prominent role in representing students.
In comments on the union's blog, she said she had wanted her first post to address the challenges of FE policy and funding, saying students faced "some of the most disgraceful attacks on our right to an education for generations".
She said: "I refuse to spend the next year dealing with sexual harassment in the student movement and focusing the time and energy I should be devoting to fighting regressive Government policies on protecting myself.
"But I won't wait until my leaving speech to make this point, and I am not going to be embarrassed or ashamed that this is what I am experiencing."
Ms Pearce said she had experienced incidents of sexual harassment involving both students and officers of unions since her appointment.
She said: "I have spent the last few weeks dealing with dozens of cases of sexual harassment, where officers and students have approached me and expected me to have sex with them because `they elected me' or `they pay my wages'. I have been challenging behaviour and views that should not even exist in the world in the 21st century, let alone the student movement."
She criticised the stereotyping of women in students' unions and the attempts to justify sexism or harassment as "banter". "None of these things are acceptable. I am a woman, and I am doing my job," she said.
A failure to deal adequately with incidents such as these was damaging the union's ability to recruit women to influential roles, she suggested, both at a national level and in individual college unions. Only four out of 18 candidates for full-time positions at last month's elections were women. None of them stood for president, and only one in 10 student union presidents is female.
"Sexism is not going away, and if this isn't evidence that we need a strong women's campaign in NUS and a women's officer in every students' union then I don't know what is," she wrote.
A spokesman for the NUS said Ms Pearce had confirmed to him that none of the people she accused of sexual harassment were staff members or members of the National Executive Council, but instead were attached to the organisation's affiliates at individual colleges or universities.
He said the union would decide whether to investigate the claims centrally or whether the issue should be dealt with by the individual unions concerned.
"Just because we have a women's campaign, we can't sit around and pat ourselves on the back," the spokesman said. "If any member says they are experiencing sexism then we would take that forward with extreme prejudice."