Sinéad O’Brien argues that gender quotas are a necessary means towards altering inequality in a male-dominated society
The proposals set out in Labour Senator Ivana Bacik’s report for a sub-committee of the Joint Oireachtas Justice Committee on women’s participation in politics came as a shock to many people; especially when reading the words “gender quotas” as part of her recommendations for improving the current situation in Ireland.
There are many ideological arguments to be made against the implementation of such gender quotas; these arguments may be based on grounds of democracy, discrimination and of course, feminism. Yet however those opposed base their argument, the fact remains that women’s participation in politics remains pathetically low in Ireland.
Only 23 out of the 166 TDs in the Oireachtas are female, and that number will be further reduced by the decision made by Liz McManus and Olwyn Enright to not seek re-election.
Women play a vital role in society and they should be represented accordingly. They account for half of the population of Ireland, and yet the proportion of female TDs has never exceeded 14%.
There is an argument to be made as to how democratic Ireland truly is when half of its population is so scarcely represented. Ireland has been criticised on numerous occasions by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women regarding this imbalance.
In the words of Former Fine Gael TD Gemma Hussey: “Women bring different life experiences, priorities, knowledge and a different style of decision-making.”
This statement begs the hypothetical question; had there been a higher proportion of women in politics, would so much of our country’s finances have been exhausted on as sickly and corrupt a financial institution as Anglo Irish Bank?
While women can make a hugely positive contribution to modern day politics, there remain many obstacles blocking their entry into the political arena. International research on the challenges women face on entering politics can, as they were in Senator Bacik’s report, be summed up in the ‘five Cs’; Childcare, Cash, Confidence, Culture and Candidate Selection Procedures. The report offers proposals to tackle each of these five issues, however the gender quotas are a direct response to the problems faced in ‘Candidate Selection Procedures’.
The greatest and most obvious impediment that women face upon entering politics is the candidate selection procedure within their own political party. Due to conservative and traditional stereotypes and a patriarchal political culture, many suitably competent female candidates are overlooked by their predominantly male counterparts in favour of other men within the party.
Many women also lack the funding to be able to embark on a political campaign, and are therefore deterred from putting themselves forward for nomination. By enforcing gender quotas on political parties, the financial obstacles that some women face when it comes to funding a campaign would be substantially diminished. In facing a penalty for not having nominated the requisite number of women, the political parties would have to make it their business to help out a woman who is unable to afford a campaign.
Inevitably, critics of gender quotas will argue that women should be able to compete against other men in their party for nominations based upon personal merit and professional competence. However, nine out of the 23 women who currently sit as TDs in the Oireachtas hail from political dynasties or have some familial link to politics.
The women in question are Mary Hanafin, Mary Coughlan, Áine Brady, Mary O’Rourke, Olwyn Enright, Joanna Tuffy, Mary Upton, Beverly Flynn and Deirdre Clune, whose connections can only have helped them when vying for a nomination in the candidate selection process.
This means that 39% of female representatives in the Oireachtas are “piggy-backing”, to some extent, on the reputations of their forefathers. By introducing gender quotas, women of a higher grade of intellect and merit would be encouraged to put themselves forward for candidacy. They would not have to worry about having any particular connections, and the overall quality of female candidate would thus be improved.
The idea of enforcing gender quotas in politics is not innovative, nor is it exclusive to Ireland. It has been tried and tested throughout European countries, with Spain, France, Belgium and Portugal implementing mandatory measures with satisfying results.
Beverly Flynn surmised that “in an ideal world [I] wouldn’t agree” to the idea of gender quotas in politics. But alas, we do not live in an ideal world, and there do come times when it is necessary to intervene in order to correct imbalances.
Irish women were granted suffrage in 1918. Ninety-two years on, women are still not proportionately represented in politics.
Gender quotas can be used to break down the male-dominated political culture that is alive in Ireland and establish a more representative democracy that accommodates us all. And once such a gender balanced democracy is finally established, the people of Ireland will reap the rewards.