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Column: Yes, gender quotas are controversial - but politics is not a level playing pitch

It will take around 370 years for Ireland to reach a 50:50 gender balance in politics – so gender quotas make sense, argue Claire McGing and Fiona Buckley.

Claire McGing

Claire McGing and Fiona Buckley argue that critics of gender quotas often ignore the basic facts – and that once women are on the ballot, it will be up to voters to decide.

JUST BEFORE THE Dáil broke up for Christmas, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Phil Hogan, published new legislation which obliges political parties to implement an electoral ‘gender’ quota.

The Electoral (Amendment) Political Funding Bill 2011 specifies that at least 30 per cent of a party’s list of election candidates must be women. If not, the party’s state funding will be cut by half. The quota will apply only to general elections and it is proposed that the threshold will rise to 40 per cent over time.

Ireland’s record in terms of women’s political representation is an abysmal one. Only 91 women have been elected to Dáil Éireann since 1918. Of the total 4,744 Dáil seats filled since the 1918 elections, only 260 (5 per cent) have been occupied by women. The election of 25 women to Dáil Éireann in February represents a new record high in terms of the number of women elected at a general election in Ireland. However, with just over 15 per cent women’s representation in its lower house, Ireland occupies 77th position out of 133 nation-states in the Inter-Parliamentary Union rankings.

Electoral gender quotas are considered a legitimate equal opportunity measure and are currently in use in more than one hundred countries worldwide. Gender quotas function as a kick-start in the process of getting more women elected to parliament and act as a compensation for structural barriers that prevent fair competition. Seventeen of the top 20 countries for women’s representation have quotas in place or have recently operated quotas. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) has continually criticised Ireland for its low representation of women in elected office and has recommended that gender quotas are introduced to increase the number of women in public life.

Quotas are highly controversial and stimulate a considerable amount of debate wherever they are adopted. Analysis of the gender quota discourse in Ireland and elsewhere reveals that resistance to quotas derives from the liberal concepts of individualism and meritocracy. Objectors consider quotas to be a form of discrimination, and a violation of the principles of fairness, competence and equality of opportunities. Others believe that quotas will lead to the selection and election of ‘unqualified’ individuals who are in politics based solely on their biological sex rather than ability. Liberal opponents suggest representation should be about representing ideas, not social categories.

‘Many candidates have forms of advantage which are considered normal and rarely questioned…’

Merit and ability arguments assume naively that all election candidates make it into politics ‘on their own’. Many candidates experience forms of advantage, whether it is family connections, large personal resources, favour by the party leadership, or, as is specific to Ireland, strong local profile due to GAA connections. These forms of advantage are considered normal and are rarely questioned.

Politics is not a level-playing pitch. Research has identified gendered barriers, such as childcare, that prevent fair competition for political office. The CSO 2010 Women and Men in Ireland Report found that half a million women in 2010 were looking after home/family compared with only 7500 men. The same report showed that employment rates amongst men and women were more or less the same before having children. However 80.2 per cent of men whose youngest child is 3 or under are in employment. The corresponding figure for women is 56 per cent.

Advocates argue that electoral gender quotas are a compensation for the structural barriers that women face when entering politics. Political research demonstrates that the key resources required to nurture a local electoral base are funds, time and networks. Given the continuing bias in favour of traditional gender roles, the simple fact is that Irish men are more likely to possess these types of capital than women. Without a fundamental overhaul of the sexual division of society, this will continue to be the case.

‘Women are members of political parties – but are less likely to rise up from membership ranks to the ballot paper’

Contrary to what some believe, women are present in the local echelons of political parties, accounting for 42 per cent of the membership of Fine Gael, 37 per cent of Labour, 34 per cent of Fianna Fáil and 25 per cent of Sinn Féin. These figures illustrate that women are less likely than men to rise up from the membership ranks to the ballot paper. The gender gap is particularly large for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, who each ran 15 per cent female candidates in the 2011 election.

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Research undertaken with party women reveals a vicious circle of supply and demand barriers: women are less likely to contest selection conventions because they believe they lack the local support base required due to the reasons mentioned above, but they are also less likely to be approached to run by party selectorates when an electoral opportunity opens up. Of the 18 candidates added to tickets by Fine Gael HQ following selection conventions for the 2011 election, only two of these were women. Two of the eight candidates added by the Labour Party were female.

Some question why candidate quotas must come through the law as opposed to individual parties voluntarily taking it upon themselves to balance their tickets by gender. Irish parties have in fact experimented with ‘soft’ measures over the past two decades, to minimal or no success. Fianna Fáil aimed to have 20 per cent women candidates in the 2007 general election, but ended up running just 13 per cent. Fine Gael also set a target to have between eight and ten women TDs elected in that election, but just five women won seats in the end. The Labour Party come the closest to meeting their targets and this is in part due to the presence of a strong and supportive women’s structure in the party. 27 per cent of their candidates in the 2011 general election were female and they would have achieved their 30 per cent target had they run just two more. With a legislative ‘push’, the incentive to select more women just isn’t there at present.

‘Once women are on the ballot it will be up to voters to decide’

The Scandinavian experience shows that voluntary measures require a strong level of commitment from party elites and members to work successfully, along with the provision of resources to allow constituency organisations to recruit and train female candidates. This has not been the case in Ireland. Of the €5.5 million parties drew down from the Exchequer in 2010 under the 1997 Electoral Act, just 1.8 per cent was spent on measures to promote the participation of women.

If let to its own devices, it will take approximately 370 years for Ireland to reach a 50:50 gender balance in politics. If passed, this gender quota legislation will help to shock the system and ensure that more women can overcome the highly gendered, localistic barriers they face. Once women are on the ballot, it will be up to voters to decide.

Fiona Buckley is a lecturer in the Department of Government, University College Cork. Claire McGing is a Government of Ireland IRCHSS scholar in the Department of Geography, NUI Maynooth. They recently contributed a chapter on the role of women in the 2011 general election to How Ireland Voted 2011, which was edited by Michael Marsh and Michael Gallagher and published by Palgrave Macmillan. Both are members of The 50/50 Group, a single issue national advocacy group dedicated to achieving equal representation in Irish politics.

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