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Opinion: 'Gender matters Leo. To win elections you need women's support too'

Only in a sexist society would women be told that caring about representation at the highest levels of government is wrong, writes Lorraine Courtney.

Lorraine Courtney Freelance journalist

CANADIAN PRIME MINISTER Justin Trudeau put his money where his mouth is, and appointed a 50/50 Cabinet with fifteen women and fifteen men. It was a Cabinet that fully reflected Canada – a move that might seem like common sense but is so often totally overlooked by leaders putting Cabinets together. Recently French President Emmanuel Macron did the same.

When it comes to women in Irish Cabinets, we’re not doing so well. Only 18 women have been appointed to Cabinet since Countess Markievicz became Minister for Labour in 1919. And while the last election improved female representation in the Dáil, we are miles away from anything resembling balanced representation.

Leo’s Cabinet

On Tuesday Leo Varadkar appointed just five women at Cabinet: Frances Fitzgerald (Tánaiste and Enterprise), Regina Doherty (Social Protection), Heather Humphreys (Culture) and Katherine Zappone (Children and Youth Affairs) plus Mary Mitchell O’Connor. Helen McEntee and Catherine Byrne remain as Junior Ministers but  Marcella Corcoran Kennedy has been demoted. Varadkar made five new appointments, all male. So, out of 33 Ministers and Ministers of State, only 7 positions are held by women.

I’m very disappointed that Leo Varadkar hasn’t followed Trudeau and Macron. It’s important that Cabinets are gender balanced. Now, I don’t think there is some kind of conspiracy by Machiavellian men to discriminate against women. But there are unconscious habits inherited from the past and a natural human tendency to team up with similar people.

I’d agree with a Cabinet that was focused solely on merit, but that would include getting rid of everyone already there and starting again with a 50/50 gender split of seats. Until that happens, we need to get as many women in as it takes to make sure half of our population are, you know, represented. Because if we are to continue having such a hugely unequal gender balance at the very top of government, then how are we ever meant to establish gender equality in the laws we pass, the institutions we’re a part of and the behaviours of those around us?

It’s unfair, of course, to judge Leo for the things his predecessors failed to do for gender parity. But it’s absolutely fair to judge him on what he is doing now, because that’s what being in charge actually means. Does he want more women in the picture? Tuesday’s appointments say he doesn’t.

Gender does matter

Gender matters. Gender was a hugely defining element of the US presidential election and Leo should remember that before he has to lead Fine Gael into the polls. Last year’s US election kicked off with the first female nominee of a major political party in America’s 240-year history.

Amid Trump boasting about the size of his manhood, the reappearance of Bill’s accusers and an almost campaign-destroying FBI announcement about Anthony Weiner’s sexting escapades, election 2016 was peppered with gender issues. Women voted against Donald Trump by one of the most significant gender gap margins ever and then marched on Washington.

Gender matters here in Ireland too. Only in a sexist society would women be told that caring about representation at the highest levels of government is wrong. Only in a sexist society would women actually believe it. Gender isn’t the only deciding factor but it does play a significant role in how we vote.

Women TDs may be comforted to see they are still doing better than their ethnic-minority counterparts and on an even more positive note, we might never see an Irish Legits-type photo shoot in our lifetimes. Purely because the day we have a female Taoiseach seems a long, long way off.

But we deserve a Cabinet that looks like Ireland right now and 51pc of us are women. Leo should have remembered that gender matters and to win an election he needs women on side too. Cause you know the way we #ReadWomen, what if we only #VoteWomen and march on Dublin?

Lorraine Courtney is a freelance journalist.

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About the author:

Lorraine Courtney  / Freelance journalist

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