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Dublin: 10 °C Sunday 21 December, 2014

Column: I’ve been involved in politics since before I could vote – but it’s still a man’s world

Industry is leading the way in discovering the benefits of gender balanced boardrooms, and the business of politics should be no different, writes Emer Higgins.

Emer Higgins

I’M 28 YEARS old and I’ve been involved in politics since before I could vote. That’s not a surprising statement – but if you follow it up with “and I’m a woman”, it becomes one. Female politicians are a rare breed, you only have to look around the Dáil Chamber at the grey hair and grey suits to see that.

My party, Fine Gael, proudly declared at the weekend that 22 per cent of our candidates selected to run in this year’s local elections will be women. Not even a quarter. The party strategists might be proud of that, but I certainly am not. And yet, at the same time, I am glad that we are making an effort.

But why do parties need to make an effort? Why do parties need to actively seek female candidates? Why aren’t more women putting their hands up and saying ‘I’m in’?

There are easier ways to make a living

It’s simple really – politics isn’t an attractive career path, for anyone. If you are educated and skilled then there are easier ways to make a living than by attending public rallies, drafting policies that may never see the light of day, holding clinics in dark corners of local pubs, defending yourself and the decisions of TDs from your party constantly, knocking on doors prepared to deal with whatever is thrown at you.

And if you are lucky, and you make it to a coveted, high-profile position then your success, or otherwise, is at the mercy of the media. And if you’re a woman, the media attention is rarely on what you have to say and more about what you’re wearing, what you’ve done with your hair, how your voice sounds or, perhaps most outrageous, what you’d know about that anyway.

So why do it? Because it’s public service. Because, for people like me, it’s exciting to be part of a movement and it’s rewarding to be able to affect change. But it’s tough work and, even in 2014, politics is a man’s world.

Diverse and inclusive industry

Politics is not the only industry with low female participation. The fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics are all male-dominated industries. The difference is that our education system and these industries are now actively encouraging women into these fields. And once they get them in the door, they are proactively creating supports for their women’s careers.

Why? Because it is worth it to have a diverse and inclusive industry – that’s positive and that’s healthy and it makes business sense. Industry is leading the way in discovering the benefits of gender balanced boardrooms, and the business of politics should be no different.

Childcare and long working hours

All three of our female Fine Gael Councillors in Dublin City Council announced their retirement recently. Why? Long evenings spent at public meetings, the cost of childcare, the cost to their careers and the general disillusionment these factors can breed. Politics is tough work and it’s made even tougher by the fact that women are not given the opportunities in politics that they are given in today’s professional, modern world.

As a councillor you are not entitled to maternity leave. It’s up to you to decide what meetings and events you miss because you’re balancing agendas and public issues with the needs of a newborn. It’s up to your family and friends to help you out with childcare in those all-important early days reserved for bonding in most families. What about that is fair? A councillor on my own council, South Dublin, recently had twins. She will be hoping that the electorate are more understanding of her circumstances than the political establishment tends to be. And I hope that is so.

The onus might be on political parties to seek out qualified women to stand for election; but the onus is on us, the electorate, to vote for them. Adding women to tickets just to satisfy a quota is the lowest form of politics. That’s why we need to keep pressure on all our political parties to ensure that they pick winning women – women who get involved in politics for the right reason and who bring talent to the table. And when they do, we, as an electorate, need to support them. Because, for every woman we elect, we get that bit closer to creating a truly representative democracy.

Emer Higgins is a Fine Gael Councillor in South Dublin. She is standing for election in the Clondalkin, Rathcoole and Newcastle area in May.

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