This has been a rather eye-opening week for me in many respects. Last week I attended for the USI Congress for the first time. It was never something I expected to go to, first because I am not involved with student politics, and second because I am so not involved in student politics that I hadn’t really heard of it. For those lucky enough not to be initiated, Congress is where almost all of USI’s policy is decided. Each member Union can send a certain number of delegates to vote on their behalf. I was chosen to go not as a delegate, but as an observer, meaning I was allowed to watch and speak, but not vote. I learned a lot last week, and not just about what 250 students will get up to if you get them extremely drunk and give them free hotel rooms. That story is reserved for therapy.
What was interesting is that I was able to see the views of people who may well be in the Irish government in 10-20 years time, and it did not fill me with hope. While on the whole the delegates there were very progressive, LGBT and mental health motions for instance were passed unanimously, there were other areas which showed me that student politicians are extremely sheltered and naïve. I’m referring to the controversial motions on female participation in politics.
Two fairly bland and benign motions about encouraging women to be involved in political life came up in Congress, and the response to them shocked me. Not only were students against them, but they declared the very idea that women need encouragement to be insulting. Several women got up to speak saying that they had been elected without encouragement, that if they could do it anyone could, and that the best person was always picked for the job. One female delegate was particularly outraged, declaring to those proposing the motion that “You might have your statistics but…”. Congress eventually passed an emergency motion on the issue, but it was the blatant ignorance and sexism of the speakers during those motions which stood out.
There were several things stated by the opposition that need addressing. First, the statistics. While the famous phrase “Lies, damn lies and statistics” may dismiss them, in this case the statistics are inarguable. Irish women are painfully under-represented in local, national and even student politics. Women make up only 15.1% of the Dáil, and 16% in local councils, despite making up 52% of the population. This level of female representation puts us 23rd out of 27 countries in in the EU, and 89th worldwide. We have just 0.1% higher female representation than the next country, Zimbabwe, and 0.5% less than the country ahead of us, North Korea. Other countries which throw Ireland’s record into shame include Rwanda (56.3%), South Africa (42.3%), Nicaragua (40.2%), Sudan (26.5), Iraq (25.2) and Afghanistan (27.7%). Student politics is in many cases worse. While USI might boast a significant female presence this year, they have not elected a female president since 1994. UCDSU currently has a female president, but the overall record is dismal, with only three female officers elected in the last 10 years, around 6%.
I think it is inarguable that women do not run, and are not elected, in anything near an equal number. Accepting this, I want to address the second point argued by those in opposition to the motion: whether the best and most capable people run and are chosen for the job. This to me, is where the main sexism creeps in, though I’m sure those positing this view would deny it to their grave. If you acknowledge that only just over 15% of representatives are women, and also that only those best suited and capable are elected, what you are saying is that women are not equally as capable as men in politics. That only 15% of women are as capable as 85% of men. I really have no response to this, other than I can’t believe this belief would exist, not only in 2013, but amongst the younger generation in 2013.
So what can be done? It’s not the electorate who is to blame as such in this case. If you were to place two equally qualified candidates up for a vote, one male, one female, I think that the woman would have, perhaps not an equal chance, but a much better than 15% chance at least. I think the main problem is that women do not put themselves forward for election in the same numbers men do. In the delightfully titled study released last month on gender gaps in politics, “Girls Just Wanna Not Run”, authors Jennifer L. Lawless and Richard L. Fox outline five factors that hinder young women’s political ambitions including that men are more likely than to be socialised by their parents to think about politics as a career path, women tend to be exposed to less political information and discussion, men are more likely to have played organised sports and care about winning, women are less likely than young men to receive encouragement to run for office from anyone at all, and women are less likely to think they will be qualified to run for office. Critically all these reasons are to do with encouragement, society’s attitudes to women in politics and socialisation of women, not their abilities.
Women have very few role models in politics, and it’s not improving. Women are never encouraged growing up to consider a political career, and if they do run, find themselves scrutinised by the public and media to a far higher degree than their male peers. God forbid a female politician be overweight or unattractive. On the other side, a too attractive woman will be instantly sexualised and dismissed by the media, with all reports focusing on appearance rather than policies. However, it seems encouragement is the deciding factor. Studies show that men and women respond equally to encouragement, and that if parents, schools, peers and media gave equal encouragement to both sexes, the gender gap would close. But if the attitudes and determination to slam the glass ceiling back in place displayed in Congress hold true for young people across the country, we are still decades away from gender equality in Irish politics.