Why are there not enough women in Irish politics?

Since the foundation of the State there have been 91 female deputies elected and the current Dáil has 25 sitting female TDs (the number of women currently in the Oireachtas rises to 43 when you include Senators). This is the highest number of women elected in a general election in Ireland. I think we can all agree that women, 50% of the population, making up only 15% of the Dáil is not good enough and something needs to be done about it.

Yes the numbers have increased over the years, the biggest jump being made between 1977 and 1992 when the percentage of female TDs rose from 4.1 to 12%. However, the numbers have slowed down again and only five more TDs were elected in 2011 than had been in 1992.

Research has come up with the five ‘Cs’ by way of explaining the lack of women in politics:

Childcare – according to a 2009 report from the National Women’s Council of Ireland, an average of one fifth of  the day is spent, by women, engaged in caring and household work. This is three times as much as men do.

Cash – women are less likely to have access to the same kind of funds as men.

Candidate Selection – the current selection process tends to favour men who are known within the party over women, who might not be as visible, making getting selected difficult in the first place.

Culture – politics in this country is still seen as ‘the old boy’s club’ and the women who are already in politics are viewed as the exception to the rule.

Confidence – women are less likely to put themselves forward for selection.

What can be done about this imbalance? Gender quotas are, increasingly, looking like the only way to make these kind of changes.

Minister Phil Hogan (FG) has introduced a bill that will see political parties have their state funding reduced unless they reach a target of having women make up 30% of their candidates at the next general election.

Gender quotas are something that I’ve struggled with, my gut reaction when I first heard about them was ‘No way, I don’t care what the reasons behind it are it’s still a form of discrimination’. However, the more I thought, read and heard about women in politics I found myself reluctantly admitting that they’re a necessary step on the road to ensuring that women are better represented in government.

Lately though, I’ve been having trouble with the idea again, not because I’ve changed my mind on the fact that something needs to be done to balance out the numbers but because I’m not sure it’ll make the kind of difference that I first thought it would. Yes, we’d have more women in the Oireachtas but would it be enough to bring about the reform we want and need?

Take the treatment of our current crop of female TDs, I can’t help but notice how they’re spoken about by the general public, other women in particular, whenever they appear on TV and/or radio. Twitter is particularly bad for this kind of carry on, within seconds of, say, Mary Lou McDonald (SF) or Lucinda Creighton (FG) appearing on screen my Twitter stream erupts with what I can only describe as uncalled for, and at times down right vile, comments about things that aren’t related to their politics at all.

Disagreeing with a politician is one thing, Lucinda and I are never going to see eye to eye on the subject of marriage equality, that’s what politics is all about but this is nothing but an excuse to name call and make comments about people’s private lives. I’m sure you all know the type of comments I’m talking about. There is absolutely no need to refer to a woman as a bitch, boot or c*nt and/or make jokes (which are never funny anyway) about the state of their marriage just because you disagree with whatever policy they’re talking about. Male politicians don’t come in for nearly as much stick and their private lives are almost never unnecessarily brought into the equation, yet women are somehow seen as fair game.

What shocks me most when I see this happen is that nine times out of ten the comments from other women are the worst. I’m talking about smart and articulate women here, who are more than capable of arguing the actual issue/topic in question but instead they resort to…well, it’s almost bullying if you ask me!

What happened to giving credit where credit was due? These women clearly have brains, they wouldn’t have made it to where they are in their careers if they didn’t. It takes guts and courage to put yourself out there and stand for public office, we should be applauding the women who already have instead of tearing them down.

Is it any wonder that culture and confidence are listed as reasons for women not entering politics? When I see what they’re up against with regards to reaction from other women my admiration for them grows, again this doesn’t mean I actually agree with them politically, because I’m not sure I’d be confident enough to put myself out there on such a public platform.

Yes there are women, who while disagreeing on a political level will still respect the TDs in question but they appear to be in the minority at the moment.

Until the attitude of women, towards the women we already have in politics, changes then calling for more balance in the Oireachtas and gender quotas to get us there is nothing short of hypocrisy. How can we talk about being supportive to women who wish to enter politics when we aren’t exactly supportive of the female TDs we already have?

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5 Responses to Why are there not enough women in Irish politics?

  1. This is a topic I have mused over a lot myself. While It would be great to have more woman elected as it would certainly put womans issues to the forefront, I do not think woman should be there to make up the numbers. The whole point of democracy is that everybody has an equaly chance and people vote for who they truly want, not having politicians forced upon on because of their gender. Plus, who is to say that a woman will do a better job regarding certain issues simply because she is a woman. What we need is the best people in power regardless of their gender.

    • Paula Dennan says:

      I completely understand what you’re saying and I’ve struggled with this myself, the way I look at it now is that if women are finding it difficult to get selected in the first place then is the ballot paper really reflecting the ‘best people for the job’ idea?

  2. There is a major question mark over whether women are finding it difficult to be selected in the first place. There is no doubt that there are fewer women selected as a % of the population however it is much less clear that they are being selected as a smaller % of those who come forward for selection. In my direct experience the opposite is the case, women who go forward at convention for selection as candidates do better on a percentage basis than men do. The problem is that too few women choose to do so. If many women are reluctant to go forward when their chance of being selected is better than men’s then a guaranteed quota will have no effect on the decision making of those women. And it is those women we need to see coming forward not the minority women who will end up benefiting and who will only stand for election if they don’t have to campaign for it.

  3. Joanna Tuffy says:

    Paula,

    What evidence have you that women are finding it difficult to get selected in the first place. That is not borne out by the evidence at all. Thefollowing parties ran the following percentages in the General Election in 2011 – Labour 26 per cent, Greens 19 per cent, Sinn Fein 20 per cent, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael 15 per cent, People Before Profit 44 per cent. Socialists 12 per cent. 2 points Socialists achieved 50 per cent female representation – 1 of their two TDs is a woman! And the percentage for Fianna Fail and Fine Gael was a big improvement on previous elections. A historical Party with a good record and outcome was the PDs again in two Dail terms having 50 per cent women. Contrast the parties with the per cent of Non Party candidates that were women – 10 per cent. There is no statistical evidence that women any less likely than men at winning selection conventions in political parties. They win some, they lose some, just like the men. If the lose what is the cause – as Frank Cluskey quipped about his own failure to get elected once – what happened – he didn’t get enough votes. The issue for women is that not enough women are coming forward. Top down imposistion of quotas is not going to solve the issues behind that. There are other steps that can be taken though and it is worth looking at why the parties that run the most women do so, which I believe relates in part to strong grassroots where women get to have a real say in party policy and decisions, a phenomenon to which top down imposition of gender quotas is anethama

    And just in relation to women and women politicians. – women support women and they support men, in fact as voters and party members they are generally gender blind and look at what the candidate has stands for.

    Joanna

  4. NB says:

    Paul this is a very good piece and well written.

    Politics and Board rooms remain the two bastions for women to ‘conquer’. Your point on ‘boys club’ relevant to both.
    I believe in best candidate for any role, understand why positive discrimination is proposed through quotas but not sure if I fully support it, maybe it demeans women to be made a special case ?.

    Women don’t just represent women but bring a female perspective and practicality to issues, which improve process. In my experience, successful women in most sectors frequently have to be better than male counterparts and this has long been the case.

    Re politics in Ireland, confidence is part of the issue, making the working environment relevant to women’s expectations/lifestyle another but perhaps most important is educating EVERY member of society to understand that politics matters and is relevant. Politics should not just be about gender representation but about reflecting and representing the diversity of population. Sadly, too few, of either sex, see politics as relevant, nor have particular interest in it nor see any role for themselves within it – even down to the basics of exercising their vote!!.

    Politics is relevant to all lives but until universally seen to be so, with people from the whole population feeling included, I fear, by default, we’ll continue to have politicians who are not only members of the ‘boys club’ but by and large a particular type of boy.! In my view the issue of gender quotas is but a part of the issue but not THE issue.

    Interestingly I was listening to Mary Robinson today, speaking of an exclusive club formed by herself and 2 others years ago when she was President – it’s for Women leaders with international power and influence. At formation there were just 3 members, some 20 years later, there’s about 40 including current and retired Leaders.

    Slow progress but progress nonetheless for women in politics.

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