A century ago, women had to fight for the right to vote to ensure that their voice was heard. There was no democracy when half the population had no say in who represented them, no say in decision-making in most jurisdictions throughout the world.
Here in Ireland, something we can be proud of is that in the first Dáil on January 21 1919, a woman, Constance Markievicz, was appointed to the cabinet as Minister for Labour. This was truly historic when you consider that Constance Markievicz was the first female cabinet minister in Western Europe and that Irish women didn’t gain the right to vote until 1928.
But here we are in 2011, a new dawn, and we have to ask ourselves, how far have we come since then? Our story is not such a proud one. A mere 23 of our 166 TDs in the Dáil dissolved this week were women and falling. In world rankings, we are placed 82nd in terms of female representation in public life. This has not improved in 20 years. We’re stuck, stagnant. What’s even more alarming is that six of the outgoing female TDs will not contest the General Election. So, where do we go from here?
Pro-active measures are needed to bring women into politics. Recent debates have focused on the need for gender quotas and evidence from many other countries clearly show that they work and work quickly. Once gender quotas deliver better gender balance in politics, they can then be removed. The situation is so acute in this country that surely it’s time for legislation for mandatory quotas to address the chronic imbalance.
And, it’s not just about having a few token women as candidates, TDs, Councillors, speckled throughout the country. This will not change the culture or the failed political system. In order to make an impact, a critical mass of women is needed to ensure that the political system is more equal and balanced. Gender quotas are just one proven way of achieving this.
Many obstacles have been identified to greater involvement of women in politics. The five Cs are often cited: childcare issues, cash flow, confidence, culture and candidate selection procedures. Schools must also play their role in encouraging young girls to consider politics as a career option. Political parties must promote participation of women and gender equality by adopting appropriate policies that promote equal opportunities for all. Politics needs to more flexible and family friendly with suitable and affordable childcare made available. Surely it’s not too much to ask the Dáil, for example, to provide proper childcare facilities, have more regular hours, sit in the morning … Introduction of a partial list system would encourage more women. There needs to be a change of culture with training provided to build confidence and promote women’s participation.
Of course, it’s not just in public life that women are grossly under-represented. Similar patterns are evident in all areas of decision making, of the economy and senior civil service positions. For example, a mere six per cent of civil servants at secretary general level are women while clerical staff makes up 81 per cent. 86 per cent of carers are women. Gender discrimination is still deeply embedded in our society. Women are paid less for their work than men; they are more likely to suffer poverty or unemployment; they receive lower pensions. These inequalities in society don’t just happen but are caused by inequalities of power.
In the current political climate of corruption and bank scandals, cronyism and jobs for the boys, the participation of women has never been more needed. Women have a huge wealth of talent, skill and energy to contribute to public life. In general, women are more practical and focused on solutions and issues rather than financial gain, getting one over on opponents, cronyism, game playing and party politics evident in the Dáil and councils today.
Generally in European countries, the rate of women’s political participation is high, and issues such as childcare, public transport, healthcare are dealt with much better than they are here. Violence against women, better services for carers, a more equitable pension system are addressed. Gender equality in politics creates a society where there is a smaller gap between rich and poor, a more equal society for all.
In the upcoming elections, Sinn Féin is putting forward an all woman team with Thérèse Ruane and Rose Conway-Walsh going forward for the party. Fine Gael is putting forward Michelle Mulherin and Fianna Fail Lisa Chambers. All three candidates are strong, intelligent and able candidates, hard workers with a proven track record over the years. There is no doubt that each would make a fine TD if elected to Dáil Éireann.
Academic research in 2002, suggested that, at the rate we’re going, we would reach equality with men in the year 2370 … three and a half centuries is too long to wait! Women have a responsibility to step up, take part and contribute to changing the shape of politics in this country. It’s time for change. Get out and vote for women candidates.