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Column: There ARE barriers to women participating in politics

Political scholar Claire McGing says a gender quota for elections is one step to balance – but meaningful change requires more than that.

Claire McGing

THERE IS A conference taking place today in Dublin Castle that will ask: How to Elect More Women? Convened by Kathleen Lynch TD, the Minister of State for Disability, Equality, Mental Health and Older People, the conference will hear from politicians, party leaders, political activists, political administrators and academics. It aims to provide an open forum for discussion on steps that can and must be taken to ensure that Irish women achieve full equality in political life.

It is being organised in light of the recent publication of the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Bill 2011. The bill proposes a gender quota. Parties must run at least 30 per cent women candidates and 30 per cent men candidates in general elections or lose half of the State funding they receive yearly under the Electoral Act, 1997. The threshold will rise to 40 per cent after seven years. If passed, Ireland will be the seventh country in the EU27 to implement a candidate balancing mechanism through law. The bill is due to go the upper house in the next few weeks.

Questions have been raised on ways in which the candidate selection process might be altered to give more consideration to gender representation. It is hoped that this important conference will consider how parties might recruit additional numbers of women to run and ensure this leads to an increase in their parliamentary presence. Speakers will also reflect on the distinct contribution women make to Irish political life.

The gender imbalance in politics is stark. Of the total 4,744 Dáil seats that have been filled since 1918, just 260 have been occupied by women. Only 91 women TDs have been elected since the foundation of the State. Twenty-five (15 per cent) Dáil seats out of 166 are currently held by women. With the 2014 local elections fast approaching, this conference is being organised at a key time.

As one of the speakers today, I will outline my research on how barriers to women’s participation can be overcome, or at the very least, lessened. Four key resources tend to equate to ‘electability’ in politics: experience, networks, time and funds. Given the persistent division of care in Irish society, men are in a better position to take advantage of these resources than women. Just 16 per cent of councillors at present are female, a particularly worrying figure since would-be deputies very often first ‘cut their teeth’ in local politics. Men have more time to devote to party activism and build up a base of supporters who will support them on the convention night. In 2012 women still earn less than men.

These factors mean the candidate pipeline is dominated in the main by well-positioned, ‘electable’ men.

Once in power, women must be facilitated to stay there

Gender quotas will allow more women to overcome these highly gendered, localistic barriers. But meaningful change requires more than simply having 30 per cent females on national candidate lists. Once in positions of power, women must be facilitated to stay there and make their distinct contribution.

Party meetings and parliamentary business should be undertaken during family-friendly hours. This would hugely benefit both men and women deputies with young children. The Scottish Parliament provides an illustrative example of the positive effects of such an approach. Female councillors, deputies and senators, like women employees, should also be entitled to statutory maternity leave.

These key issues, and others, will be discussed and debated today in Dublin Castle. There is plenty of opportunity for delegates to make contributions from the floor.

2012 marks the 90th anniversary of the full enfranchisement of Irish women. We should aim for a parliament that better reflects the composition of society for the 100-year celebration. The political underrepresentation of women, or perhaps better put as the overrepresentation of men, has negative symbolic and substantive consequences. To leave the last words to the late Dr Garret FitzGerald: ‘Our party system, lacking significant female input, is bound to be incomplete and defective’.

Claire McGing is a Government of Ireland IRCHSS scholar and a John and Pat Hume scholar in the Department of Geography at NUI Maynooth. Her doctoral research is concerned with the relationship between gender and electoral politics in Ireland.

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