Column More female voices are needed in Irish politics to tackle societal imbalances

Only when a large enough proportion of elected representatives are female will the challenges, interests and life experiences applicable to women properly gain a voice in Ireland, writes Fianna Fail Ard Fheis candidate Laura Reid.

THE BALLOT TOMORROW at the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis will be the first time I’ve ever put myself forward for an election. I’m equally nervous as I am excited. The election, which is contested nationally, is to become a member of the Committee of 20 which sit of the National Executive of Fianna Fáil. It is voted for by the thousands of Fianna Fáil members who attend the Ard Fheis.

It’s been 31 years since a person from Dublin North West has been represented on the Committee of 20 so the ambition to succeed is immense. Over the last few weeks I’ve travelled to meet members all over the country and have learned, for the first time, how to promote myself, my ability and my campaign proposal.

I joined Fianna Fáil in 2009 when the party was experiencing difficulty. I became a member at the relatively late age of 25. I took my time to choose the party that would best represent me and my way of thinking. I don’t come from a political family – although growing up we were known to be avid viewers of the West Wing.

My experience of politics to date has been considerably different to that which I had imagined. The first Fianna Fáil meeting I attended I found myself to be the only woman under 30 in the room, however, I was immediately welcomed to the group and actively encouraged to become involved.

Women need a proper voice in Irish politics

The first election campaign I canvassed for was the General Election in 2011 which was a definite learning experience. Since then I have continued to canvass on doors in Santry, Finglas and Ballymun, to engage with residents and work towards resolving local issues. I was delighted when I was appointed Local Area Representative for Dublin North West and found the Elected Representatives, fellow Local Area Representatives and Fianna Fáil members to be of huge support.

Last week Senator Averil Power and I were asked by Ógra Fianna Fáil (the youth wing of the party) in DCU to participate in a discussion titled ‘Why should Women enter Irish Politics today?’  I compared the involvement of women in politics to the involvement of Ógra, which is a hugely significant forum, as it brings together young people who have similar interests and allows them to attain a strong voice. They campaign on issues such as student grants, increase of fees, graduate employment, Seanad reform, organ donation etc, and have proven their ability to have an impact on modern politics.

It is for this reason that more women should get into politics. It will only be when a large enough proportion of elected representatives are female that challenges, interests and life experiences applicable to women will properly gain a voice and be represented. It is hugely important that the government properly represents society and that voters can easily relate to election candidates.

That is not to say that a male candidate wouldn’t be able to represent a female voter adequately or that there is not a similar argument for quotas for minority groups, however the fact stands that women are not a minority group in society, they are in fact a slight majority.

Unacceptable societal imbalances continue to exist

The main reason I believe more women should enter Irish politics is so that there can be a stronger voice to help rectify societal imbalances. The European Commission Statistics for Ireland show that there is still a 15 per cent pay gap between women and men, that only 30 per cent of entrepreneurs are women and that only 30 per cent of managerial positions are held by women. This is unacceptable in 2013.

The General Election in 2011 proves that as a country we are as inclined to vote for a female candidate as we are a male candidate. Of the 566 election candidates for the 2011 General Election 15 per cent of those were women. On polling day voters elected 15 per cent of Dáil seats to female candidates. The political problem lies in the fact that over 300,000 voters had no female candidate to choose from (Cork South-West, Kildare South, Limerick, and Roscommon-South Leitrim). We need more women to put themselves on the ticket.

Personally, I am completely against gender quotas. I want male candidates to compete with my skill-set and ability – not with my gender. However I do understand that it is a necessary short term corrective measure. In recent years, more than a hundred countries have adopted candidate gender quotas for the selection of candidates to political office and international research shows that they are a successful contributor to increasing women’s representation worldwide. I’m confident that candidate gender quotas will not create the phenomenon of the ‘token woman’ because if the candidate, male or female, isn’t suitable for the job they will not be successful in an election.

Fianna Fáil has taken the initiative on gender quotas in terms of the Committee of 20. The group consists of 10 men and 10 women. The profile of the women running this year is certain proof that our election will be as hotly contested as that of our male counterparts.  Through years’ involvement of strong, credible male and female candidates on past Committees of 20 the role has become a significant goal for any aspiring politician.

Issues such as childcare need to be re-evaluated

I believe that if we are to encourage more women to run for political office that it is as important to support them with proactive measures, such as mentoring and training like the programmes run by the organisation ‘Women for Election’. Attending one of their events confirmed for me my ambition to become more involved in politics. Issues such as childcare and culture are also important to re-evaluate to allow elected representatives a more stable work/family life.

Fianna Fáil is renewing and is actively encouraging credible male and female candidates to become involved. The party now has its first female leader of Ógra in Kate Feeney, capable young people as Local Area Representatives and hard-working Elected Representatives supported by the strong leadership of Micheal Martin. I’m no longer the only woman under 30 in the room.

This Saturday I’ll see my name on a ballot paper for the first time. When the votes are counted on Sunday, regardless of the outcome, I will not regret my decision to run. The support I’ve received and the journey I’ve experienced prove to me that all things are possible with hard work and commitment, once you put yourself forward.

Laura Reid is a 28-year-old sales manager for a large department store in North Dublin. She grew up in Santry, Dublin and has recently been appointed a Local Area Representative in Dublin North West by Michael Martin. Laura is a graduate of European Business and French (DCU and Reims Management School, France) and holds a Masters in International Relations (DCU).

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