International Women’s Day, celebrated throughout the world on March 8, will soon be upon us. It was first nominated as a national holiday for women in 1908 to highlight a strike by New York women clothing workers against the sweatshop conditions in the factories. From its beginning it has been rooted in years of struggle and used as a rallying point to demand women’s rights and women’s suffrage. 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.
Almost a century later, we have to ask how far we have come since then. 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.
On a more positive note, there is no doubt that there is a general acceptance of the need for gender balance in decision-making at all levels in society. However, there is a gross under-representation of women in all areas of political life, the economy, and senior civil service positions and the struggle to advance women’s rights and participation is failing. For example, a mere six per cent of civil servants at secretary general level are women while clerical staff make up 81 per cent.
And what about representation in political life? Twenty two of our 166 TDs are women (13 per cent ). In local politics, nationally, 19 per cent of local councillors are women. However, here in Mayo the figures are abominably low; five of the seven electoral areas have no women representatives at all and a mere three out of 31 seats on Mayo County Council are held by women. In the Castlebar electoral area, there were 0 per cent women candidates in the local elections in 2004. Indeed, Castlebar Town Council was an all-male affair until Councillor Therese Ruane was co-opted on February 12 last – the first woman in 18 years!
Can we imagine, for a minute, a society where women have 50 per cent representation in politics, locally and nationally? How would it be different? Generally in European countries, the rate of women’s political participation is high and issues such as childcare, public transport, healthcare and equality are addressed to a far greater degree than they are here in Ireland. Indeed, gender equality in politics would mean more balanced policies, equal opportunities and a better society for all, greater equality of opportunity, affordable childcare, priority given to tackling domestic and sexual violence, easy access to appropriate healthcare, better services for carers, a more equitable pension system and a more equitable society with a smaller gap between rich and poor.
Political parties must promote participation of women and gender equality by adopting appropriate policies that address women’s concerns and promote equal opportunities for all. The barriers to participation must be identified and incentives for women put in place that will improve access. Politics needs to more flexible and family friendly with suitable and affordable childcare made available. There needs to be a change of culture with training provided to build confidence and promote women’s participation.
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 our councils today.
In a recent article in The Irish Times (17.11.08 ), Anne Marie Hourihan blamed the fact that only 22 of our 166 TDs are women on the “besotted men who have run Irish politics for generations”. It’s time for change. It’s in women’s hands and women have to make it happen. Vote for women candidates in the elections in June.