In January 2014, the McMaster Redsuits – the engineering student group – became subject to an investigation. This investigation was triggered when the university administration’s attention was drawn to a songbook filled with misogynistic and violent songs. Songs in the songbook include references to torture, rape, incest, bestiality and murder.
Calling the material in the songbook “highly repugnant” and full of “sexist, violent and degrading material”, the university hired an external auditor to take a closer look at the culture and conduct of the student group.
In April 2014, the report was released and it clearly shows that a toxic culture exists. This toxic culture poses barriers to those who refuse to participate.
One example includes the selection process for Welcome Week representatives. Potential candidates were asked inappropriate questions on their applications including “If your genitalia suddenly became sentient what would be your conversation with them?” and a connect the dot exercise which, when completed, showed a sexual image. The auditor asserts that these questions and activities likely discouraged some applicants or played a part in who was selected.
The report also details a ceremony for successful candidates where individuals strip before receiving their redsuit. While individuals were told that they did not have to strip, this part of the ceremony was considered a “tradition” and some students felt pressured to participate.
The auditor did not find evidence that the songbook is currently distributed or promoted; however, some “offensive” songs continue to be taught and sung by the group. Some of the students the auditor interviewed were upset by this because they found the songs “…degrading and inappropriate, particularly to women…” (pg. 37).
Based on the auditor’s report, the Associate-Vice President and Dean of Students made a number of recommendations. He recommended that the Faculty of Engineering and University Student Affairs oversee the hiring of Welcome Week representatives, as well as training for Welcome Week representatives which includes “…a strong emphasis on diversity/inclusivity training and sexual violence/harassment” (pg. 7). Additionally, according to the recommendations, any further distribution or promotion of the songbook or similar material will be dealt with swiftly by the university.
Let’s hope that McMaster University works to meaningfully apply these recommendations. The kind of toxic culture discussed in the auditor’s report is unacceptable. It perpetuates misogyny and contributes to the trivialization of violence.