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'Male, pale and stale - why gender quotas are not enough to change that'

Ever heard of the 5 Cs of women in politics? Kathryn Reilly has – and they are massive hurdles.

Kathryn Reilly

LAST WEEK I gave the keynote speech to the annual Canadian Association of Irish Studies at Dalhousie University on the topics of young people in politics, women in politics and the Seanad, from my own perspective as the youngest member of the Oireachtas and as one of the female minority.

My paper entitled “Male, Pale and Stale? Is the Irish Political Landscape Changing?” looked at the barriers to public participation of young people and women, the gender quotas being introduced at the next election and how, as a legislature, we are changing.

A portrait of Constance Markievicz stands outside the doors of the Seanad and serves as a reminder of how intelligent, powerful women influenced the development of the Irish State. In her own words on the issue of women’s suffrage she had noted that “now is the time, on you the responsibility rests. It may be as a leader, it may be as a humble follower… perhaps in a political party, perhaps in a party of your own… but it is there.”

Source: wikimedia

She affirmed that there was a role for women. But how are women expressing themselves in the political, economic and social aspects of their nation outside the home, as Constance called for, when there exists such low levels of female representation in our Houses of Parliament? Are there barriers to women that perhaps gender quotas aren’t going to fix?

This was one of the questions presented to me after I gave my paper. Yes, Ireland is introducing quotas and that will see more women on ballot papers, lest political parties lose some of their funding. Yes, there is an onus now for tough decisions to be made, often controversial decisions. But that doesn’t deal with the underlying reasons for women’s under-representation in Irish politics, which have been identified as the ‘5 Cs’.

What are the 5Cs of getting women to participate?

Quotas don’t change the Culture; they do not address Confidence; they don’t deal with the issue of Childcare or easier access to Cash. We are dealing head on with the Candidate selection process, but the other Cs that inhibiting women’s entry are simply not addressed.

Politics is largely a male-dominated sphere.  We just need to look at our councils and the Oireachtas to see this. As a young woman who has both worked in the Oireachtas as a Parliamentary Assistant and who has sat as a member of the Seanad, it is hard to miss the intrinsic masculinity of the political assembly. Women are not lacking in the roles of political advisors, assistants or management but the transition to public representative does not seem to be so smooth. It seems that there is no problem in women behind the scenes, but we are often very absent from the stage.

This culture of masculinity is embedded in Irish politics. And unfortunately, female representatives are often rolled out only as a photo-op or when there is a need to appeal to a swathe of the electorate with whom there may not be natural affinity.

It is not my place to comment or cast aspersions on the internal dynamics of any other political party, or to pontificate about how political parties could do their business better. All political parties have to do better. Their bread and butter – their political funding- has been put under threat should they fail to meet the gender quotas. But we need to tackle head on what is happening internally and externally in the treatment of aspiring or existing female representatives.

Where is the respect?

When we talk about confidence, when we talk about barriers to running for election, when we talk about why women aren’t in political positions, it’s clear we can no longer just focus on quotas when too often what we are missing is respect.

Social media is one example, and my colleague in the Seanad, Senator Lorraine Higgins has documented the chronicles of vitriolic abuse she has received.

But it is not just externally. How can we seek to foster public respect and confidence in our candidates and representatives, if the bastions of democracy – the political parties – cannot show this respect themselves. Nobody would express an opinion, speak up at a meeting or make suggestions if they thought they would be laughed out of a room or “scoffed at”.

The lack of women in politics is often lamented. We scratch our heads and wonder why women are apprehensive in coming forward. It is simple. We have identified the 5 Cs previously. We have all given and heard numerous speeches on the issue. But it doesn’t require a political assembly, a convention, a conference. All it requires is for someone to turn on the radio or the television in the last few days.

Nor can we point the finger solely at the establishment. Look at the comments under an opinion piece or a news headline. Read the comments on Twitter.

Kathryn Reilly is a Sinn Féin Senator.

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