On Monday of last week the 20 elected seats of Westmeath County Council were filled for a meeting, but not all by elected representatives.
In a vivid depiction of what gender inequity looks like, the present configuration of Westmeath County Council, with four female councillors and 16 male councillors was reversed, and 16 women took part, along with four of the county’s male representatives.
The event was held as part of International Women’s Day 2023 celebrations and a cross-party and cross-county network of female councillors from 13 local authorities who form the WoMeN’s (Western, Midlands and Northern ) regional caucus were behind the project which saw councils across the region ‘flipped’ for International Women’s Day.
Showing the flexibility of Westmeath County Council meetings, the Cathaoirleach of Westmeath County Council Cllr Aengus O’Rourke, Cllr Aoife Davitt and Cllr Louise Heavin joined the meeting online. The meeting was chaired by the Mayor of the Mullingar-Kinnegad Municipal District, Cllr Hazel Smyth and she was joined in the chamber by her elected colleagues, Cllrs Emily Wallace, John Shaw, Denis Leonard and Frank McDermott. Cathaoirleach Cllr Aengus O’Rourke recorded his support for the WoMeN’s regional caucus and welcomed everyone to the Council Chamber for this important event.
Cllr Smyth praised the steps that are being taken to address the inequity issues in the council chambers, including the funding that was secured for a family friendly room in the Council Chambers and a baby changing facility to encourage more people with caring responsibilities to run for election; as well as information leaflets, videos and a recent workshop for potential political candidates. She emphasised how important diversity is in council chambers and gave the example of how greater diversity on jury panels has been shown to lead to decisions that are debated more vigorously and ultimately to what are viewed as better outcomes.
Caucus member Cllr Emily Wallace said that growing up, neither herself nor Cllr Aoife Davitt saw differentiation on gender and both were the first women to play on their club’s hurling team, and urged women to step forward. Cllr. Wallace spoke of the need to ‘lead by example’ and the importance of keeping women involved.
“When you look at politics from an equality perspective, everyone has the same rights to run for election. But when you look at equity, the low numbers of women in many county councils tells us that additional resources are needed so that are councils are more diverse and more closely resemble the population they represent,” Dr Michelle Maher, Programme Manager with See Her Elected, who lives in Westmeath, said.
Confidence was a recurring theme with suggestions that more young people, students and schoolchildren be encouraged into the council chamber for meetings to demystify local politics as part of encouraging wider confidence to run for election. Women present spoke of being “flat out in the community” and “being late starters in their interest in politics” or “not understanding much about politics”. Nevertheless, they were “sick of small steps” and were ready to change the face of Westmeath County Council by bringing their expertise and “ability to disrupt the status quo” into the chamber.
The councillors present welcomed all the contributions. Cllr Denis Leonard added to the theme of education, noting that “conditioning into gendered roles starts early”. He added that the upcoming announcement of a referendum regarding the constitutional provision on women’s place being in the home was welcomed. Cllr Louise Heavin who was attending remotely said “how pleasing it was to see a Council Chamber full of women” and urged for greater access for live streaming of Council meetings to broaden the number of people who could exercise their right to observe council and municipal district meetings.
Cllr John Shaw spoke about how daunting he found politics at first, and recognised how much more daunting the Council chamber must be if you don’t see many people, or any people like yourself when you walk in. Cllr Frank McDermott welcomed and fully supported the effort painted by a picture of a Council meeting where the gender of those present for a meeting was the opposite of the elected membership and said he “hoped it was the start of something much bigger in terms of a more inclusive politics for Westmeath”.
Westmeath County Council support action to address the lack of gender and diversity in local government with their ‘A More Inclusive Politics for Westmeath’ project, and information on this exciting initiative can be found on their website.