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Lise Hand: We might get a female taoiseach but gender balance stays stubbornly skewed

Ireland had six crucial decades when the nation was being shaped where women were absent from the top table of government. But what now?, asks Lise Hand.

Lise Hand Journalist-at-large

AS A CLEARER overall picture began to emerge from the fog of Sunday’s count war, a female political correspondent tweeted, “Some really effective, hard-working women losing their seats as #GE2020 continues to play out.”

A chap responded. “Mmm its [sic] called democracy; nothing to do with #gender” followed by the exasperated-eyes-to-heaven emoji. That’s women for you, eh?

Presumably the journalist was too busy covering the election and analysing the outcomes across the national airwaves to thank him profusely for his insightful explication of the democratic process.

Or perhaps she was busily scanning the slew of incoming declarations for the brave new dawn with the diminishing optimism of someone keeping vigil at a bus-stop on a rain-lashed Monday morning.

Where oh where was the cavalcade of newly elected women TDs being hoisted aloft on shoulders in count centres? Alas, like the long-awaited omnibus, it was nowhere in sight. Gender’s role in our elections cannot be simply dismissed with a patronising emoji.

When it comes to women in politics, the playing-pitch has been seriously unbalanced since the foundation of our parliament, particularly at the cabinet table. To list the damning statistics would make Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ look like a short essay, so let’s just pick one at random: when Fianna Fáil’s Maire Geoghegan-Quinn was appointed Minister for the Gaeltacht by Taoiseach Charlie Haughey in 1979, she became the first woman to hold a senior ministerial post since Constance Markievicz was given the position of Minister for Labour in 1919.

Think of that: 60 years when women were absent from the top table of government. Six crucial decades when the nation was being shaped, policies being carved to become cornerstones of Irish society, and when women’s lives were controlled to a huge extent by Church and State, from their reproductive rights to career paths – the marriage bar on women remaining in public sector work after marriage was only lifted in Ireland in 1973, one of the last countries to do so.

Quotas

Geoghegan-Quinn may have broken into the boys’ club, but the gender balance remained stubbornly skewed. Finally it dawned on the political establishment that for various reasons the playing pitch wouldn’t level itself, and the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Bill was passed in 2012, introducing an electoral gender quota into the Irish political system.

Surmising (correctly) that a mere act of law would have little effect on ingrained habits among the parties unless affixed to it was a bloody great big stick, Section 42 provided that any political party which did not have at least 30% of its candidates of each gender at the next general election (then February 26, 2016) would have its state funding cut by half.

And – surprise – in 2016 a record 35 women were elected, increasing Ireland’s female parliamentary representation to 22%.

It was hailed as a breakthrough, a new dawn for equality ushered by the introduction of gender quotas.

Except after that election the front benches still didn’t look splendidly equal. Four out of the 14 senior ministers were women, and four out of 18 junior ministers, plus the chief whip. When Leo Varadkar took over as taoiseach mid-2017, there were some changes in personnel, but the numbers remained the same. In the last Dáil, Ireland ranked a dismal 22 out of 27 for the number of female government ministers.

Nor was there any new dawn in last year’s local elections when the government cravenly removed the stick and tried to replace it with a financial carrot, promising funding for an equality officer to every party which met the 30% quota of nominated candidates. It was a failure – less than a quarter of the elected 949 councillors were women.

But surely the second general election held with gender quotas in place would be different. Surely the main parties now understood that to achieve parity it wasn’t simply a matter of scrambling to stick the requisite number of female candidates onto general election tickets to reach the magic 30% and hang onto their funding?

Surely they had copped on that there was more to it than that? After all, a record 31% of candidates, or 162 contenders – running in every constituency in this election were women.

But it was the smaller parties such as the Social Democrats, the Green Party and People before Profit and Independents doing much of the running; Fine Gael squeaked over the gender barrier with 30.5% of women candidates, and Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin weren’t much better, with 31% and 33% respectively.

And as the votes were counted in this extraordinary election, it became clear that a disappointing dawn was coming into view. Among the casualties were outgoing Fine Gael ministers Regina Doherty, Katherine Zappone, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, Catherine Byrne, Marcella Corcoran Kennedy, and high-profile TDs such as Kate O’Connell, Lisa Chambers, Fiona O’Loughlin and Ruth Coppinger.

The list made for grim reading.

Whatever anyone might think of their politics, this was a cohort of experienced female parliamentarians who know how to work collegially and cross-party and many of whom championed issues which most affect women.

And for the posse of new women TDs entering Leinster House, a female network is damn useful when finding one’s feet.

The number of women shaping up to be part of the 33rd Dáil – 35 women TDs have been elected – is disappointing. Not so much a women’s wave as a stagnant pool.

A number of constituencies have no women representation at all, including the taoiseach’s own constituency of Dublin West, as well as Dublin Bay South, Dublin South West, Meath West, Tipperary, both Limerick City and County and most damning of all, there is a grand total of one woman TD across all the Cork constituencies, Social Democrats newcomer Holly Cairns.

PastedImage-58551 Dublin South West

It’s clear that gender quotas need to be buttressed with an overhaul of several other aspects of politics to encourage and support more women keen to enter the political arena. Excellent organisations such as Women for Election have been doing sterling work, but they can’t do the heavy lifting alone.

The gender imbalances in Houses of the Oireachtas and on the country’s local councils do not reflect the almost 50-50 balance in Irish society. Yet policies and legislation are drafted, accepted, debated, passed or rejected from a largely male perspective. Tellingly, just two of the top 17 civil service jobs are held by women – men account for two-thirds of the senior roles in government departments.

PastedImage-92959 Cork East

Only when a critical mass of women are seated in the Houses of the Oireachtas – and while we’re at it – in the boardrooms of corporations, public and private companies, traditional media organisations, banks and in the top echelons of universities, will issues such as the persistent 13% gender pay gap, the spiralling cost of childcare, the need to overhaul sentencing for sex crimes, tackling domestic violence become core issues in parliament rather than afterthoughts.

It’s a simple enough equation; the bigger the gender gap in political institutions – councils and parliaments – the greater the democratic deficit.

So, again no matter what one thinks of her politics or her party, there can hardly be a woman in Ireland who isn’t relishing the spectacle right now of Mary Lou McDonald working the phones with gusto, ringing around other party leaders and taking the lead in trying to puzzle out a potential government from the Rubik’s Cube result which would involve a ground-breaking, historic rotation in the taoiseach’s chair.

“I may well be the next taoiseach, yes,” she said firmly.

She may well be. That’s democracy for ye.

See more of Lise Hand’s columns for TheJournal.ie here.

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About the author:

Lise Hand  / Journalist-at-large

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