Female candidacies in 2009 local elections

Claire McGing and Adrian Kavanagh (August 5, 2010)

A report on trends as to female candidate selection levels for the upcoming 2014 Local Elections can be viewed here.  

In light of ongoing discussion in relation to number of female TDs, this piece – a section from an article we wrote on last year’s local elections that we never managed to find a home for (sob!) – might be of interest as it gives an overview of female particicipation in electoral politics at a local level, with specific reference to last year’s contests.

17.1% of all candidates in the 2009 local elections were females. This figure marginally bucks the trend set over the previous two decades of increasing levels of female participation in local electoral contests, wherein female participation rates had increased from 11.0% in 1985 to 14.0% in 1991, 15.6% in 1999 and 18.1% in 2004. Table 1 uncovers significant differences between the larger parties and the smaller, more ideological, parties in terms of their propensity to select female election candidates, although the smaller parties all failed to meet the gender quota targets that they had adopted for these elections. Labour and Sinn Féin had both proposed quotas of 30%, while the Green Party had been even more ambitious in their aspiration for an increase in female candidacies by pursuing a quota of 40% (Liam Weeks, 2009: 101).

Party Total Male Female % Female
Fianna Fáil 473 393 80 16.9%
Fine Gael 470 385 85 18.1%
Labour 208 160 48 23.1%
Sinn Féin 149 115 34 22.8%
Green Party 77 60 17 22.1%
Others 446 398 48 10.8%
Total 1823 1511 312 17.1%

Table 1: Number of male and female candidates selected by political parties to contest the 2009 local elections.

While the percentage of female candidates selected by Labour (up by 4.1%) and Sinn Féin (up by 2.7%) did improve on their 2004 levels, the proportion of Green Party female candidates actually declined, marking a decrease of 15.2% from their 2004 levels. Fianna Fáil has a target to have a third of all its candidates female in the 2014 local elections (Weeks, 2009: 101) and had announced prior to the candidate selection process that it would interview “young people and females in particular” around the country as part of this (Regan, 2009), but despite this it only registered a 2.4% increase on its relatively low 2004 female candidacies levels.

Significant spatial variations exist in terms of the likelihood of women being selected as candidates, mirroring the general trend observed in recent general and local elections, with the percentage of female candidacies considerably higher in Dublin and its immediate commuter hinterland, as well as in some of the other city council areas. Dublin City (27.1%) had the highest number of female candidacies, followed by Dún Laoghaire (26.2%), Meath (24.2%), Kilkenny (23.5%), South Dublin (23.0%), Fingal (21.0%) and Waterford City (20.0%), although female participation levels in Cork City (16.9%) and Limerick City (12.8%) were lower than the national average. Especially high female participation levels were found in the Dublin Inner City electoral areas (45.7%), and indeed only two of the candidates selected by the three larger parties in the two South Inner City electoral areas were male. Women were considerably underrepresented as candidates in the more rural constituencies, with especially low female participation levels found in Tipperary South Riding and Clare (10.3%), Leitrim (10.8%), Mayo (11.8%), Monaghan (12.1%), Tipperary North Riding (12.2%), Longford (12.2%) and Waterford County (12.5%). The regional analysis conveyed in Table 7 further confirms the urban bias in female candidate selection. Although parties speak out about rectifying the disproportionate nature of gender with regard to candidate tickets, a geographical analysis of female candidates in the 2009 local elections contends that there has been a failure on the part of party central organisations in doing so, especially in rural areas.

Region Female candidates (%) Success rate (%)
Dublin 24.8% 52.0%
Dublin Commuter Belt 18.8% 40.8%
South-East 17.8% 38.3%
Border 15.2% 51.2%
Connacht and West Munster 15.5% 45.5%
Midlands 14.0% 44.1%

Table 2: Number of female local election candidates selected by region, and their relative success levels.

In total, 165 female candidates were successful in the 2009 City and County Council elections – with 33 of these successful candidates representing Fianna Fail, 56 representing Fine Gael, 30 representing the Labour Party, 12 representing Sinn Fein and the other 15 successful candidates hailing from the smaller parties and independents grouping. No female Green Party candidate won a seat in these elections. Females accounted for higher proportions of the total number of seats won by a political party in the case of Labour (23% of all seats won by the party) and Sinn Fein (22%), while accounting for smaller proportions of the total numbers of seats won by parties in the cases of Fine Gael (16%), Fianna Fail (15%) and the smaller parties and independents (11%) grouping. Female party candidates were much more successful in the Dublin region, where females accounted for over 30% of total number of seats won by Fianna Fail (33%), Labour (31%) and Fine Gael (30%) candidates, while – by contrast – females accounted for only 11% of the total number of Fianna Fail seats in both Leinster and Munster and 10% of the total number of Fine Gael seats won in  Connacht-Ulster.


Percentage of vote won by female candidates by county, 2009 local elections

Percentage of vote won by female candidates by county, 2009 local elections


Nationally, the success rate of female candidates in these local elections stood at 46.8%, marking an improvement on the 2004 local elections when 42.5% of female candidates won seats. A review of other past local elections places the respective figures at 44.8% in 1999, 44.8% in 1991 and at 34.0% in 1985. Despite the sharp increase between 1985 and 1991, the amount of women winning council seats has remained relatively static since then. Notable differences existed between parties, with 65.9% of female Fine Gael and 62.4% of female Labour candidates proving successful in these elections, as against just 41.2% of female Fianna Fáil candidates and 35.3% of female Sinn Féin candidates. The Green Party failed to elect any women to county and city councils in 2009. In the “Others” category, 31.3% of female candidates won seats, with significant successes for female Socialist Party and People Before Profit Alliance candidates in Dublin City and Fingal. In geographical terms, an urban bias is again evident, with females shown to be more likely to win seats in Dublin than in any of the other regions (Table 2), although it also shows that female candidates fared better electorally in the Border, West and Midlands regions than they did in the more urban Dublin Commuter Belt and South East regions.

At a more localised level, the three Dublin Inner City electoral areas warrant comment, given the success that female, and in particular young female, candidates experienced in, first of all, getting selected to contest these electoral areas by different political parties and then in winning seats in the local elections contests here. Indeed, more females (12 out of 22 candidates) than males were selected to run for the different political parties in these constituencies. In the three electoral areas, more female candidates (8) were elected than male candidates (6); four of these for Labour (Rebecca Moynihan, Maria Parodi, Claire O’Regan and Emer Costello), two for Fine Gael (Catherine Noone and Clare Byrne) and one for Sinn Fein (Criona ni Dalaigh) with one female independent candidate (Maureen O’Sullivan) also elected. While Fianna Fail had no female candidate elected (indeed they failed to win a seat in any of the three electoral areas) in the inner city constituencies, candidates such as Catherine Ardagh and Sarah Ryan polled well in relative terms, given the political context at the time the elections were called. On average, female candidates won 1,000 votes in the inner city electoral areas, as against an average vote of 717 for male candidates.

Females as percentage of all Fianna Fail/Fine Gael local election candidiates, 2009 local elections

Females as percentage of all Fianna Fail/Fine Gael local election candidiates, 2009 local elections

There was also a notable improvement in success levels for female candidates in Co. Meath where nine female candidates won seats on Meath County Council, as against just four in the 2004 local elections.

Was incumbency a key factor in determining the relative success levels of female candidates? Table 3 shows that female incumbents who contested the 2009 elections were slightly more successful (81%) in defending their seats than their male counterparts were (77%), but were significantly more successful in Dublin and the other cities (success rate of 84% for female incumbents against rate of 73% for male incumbents). Outside the cities, success rates for male (78%) and female (80%) incumbents tended to be roughly similar.

Where females compared less favourably to males was in terms of how likely successful candidates in 2004 were to defend their seats in 2009. When candidates who went on to be “promoted” (to TD, Senator or MEP) in the interim period are excluded, analysis shows that 25% of the successful female candidates (35 in total) in 2004 did not defend their seats in 2009, against a level of just 17% for successful 2004 male candidates (in total, 18% of elected councillors did not defend their seats in 2009), with gender differences significantly more evident in the rural electoral areas (24% of females against 15% of males) than in urban areas (29% of females against 25% of males). Dublin was the region were successful 2004 candidates were least likely to defend their seats (27%), contrasting with Connacht-Ulster where 90% of the successful 2004 candidates defended their seats in 2009. In the Dublin Inner City electoral areas, 40% of the successful 2004 candidates did not defend their seats.

Malein_win Malein_loss Maleseat04 Femalein_win Femalein_loss Femaleseat04
State 453 134 732 86 20 151
Dublin 46 16 90 23 3 40
Leinster 140 45 224 17 8 38
Munster 134 36 228 22 6 40
Connacht-Ulster 133 37 190 24 3 33
Urban 80 29 153 31 6 55
Rural 373 105 579 55 14 96

Table 3: Relative success levels of male (“malein”) and female (“femalein”) incumbent candidates in the 2009 local elections.

Females accounted for 16% of the total number of incumbents who defended their seats successfully in 2009, but accounted for 33% of successful defences in Dublin as against a level of just 13% for the rural electoral areas.

Female co-optees tended to be more successful in defending their seats in the 2009 elections (80%) than male co-optees (just 59%), although the total number of female co-optees (15) was low relative to the number of male co-optees (64).

In terms of newly elected candidates, 236 non incumbent/cop-opted males won seats in this election (accounting for 32% of the total number of males elected), while 48 non incumbent/cop-opted females won seats (accounting for 32% of the total number of females elected). In total, females accounted for 17% of the total number of non incumbent/cop-opted candidates elected in the 2009 City and County Council elections, as against levels of 21% for Dublin and 22% for Leinster. Success levels for new female candidates were especially noticeable in Co. Meath (8 new female candidates elected, accounting for nearly two-thirds of the non incumbent/cop-opted candidates elected there) and the Dublin Inner City electoral areas Meath (8 new female candidates elected, accounting for nearly two-thirds of the non incumbent/cop-opted candidates elected there). What is interesting is that these areas both proved to be poor hunting grounds for incumbent candidates in the 2009 local elections. On average, 22% of all incumbent candidates in these elections failed to win a seat (154 out of 539 incumbent candidates), with the failure rate being slightly higher (25%) in Leinster than in other provinces. However the incumbent candidate failure rates were significantly higher in the Dublin Inner City electoral areas (33%) and especially in Co. Meath (37%).

7 thoughts on “Female candidacies in 2009 local elections

  1. Fantastic analysis.

    Do the researchers have any ideas as to why urban councils are more gender balanced?


  2. I love this sort of hard data, I’m being cheeky but what was the % of male/female for the parties when incumbents were removed from consideration. One of the big drags on increasing female participation in elections and on their actual election is the very large factor that incumbency can bring.

    I suspect that might be one factor in why the numbers are so low for parties like SF, Labour and the GP which have made a lot noise internally about increasing female participation. If SF have spent 20 years building up a presence for say Larry O’Toole in Artane and DNE, they’re realistically not in a position to cast him aside just so they can make the % look good. I’m just using Cllr O’Toole and SF as an example, this is the case for all the parties.

    Many people outside politics often appear to be unaware that election cycles now only come around every 4/5 years. One of the big factors, in my view, in the rapid emergence of many significant women politicians in the 80s was the large number of elections that happened between 1977 and 1982, 4 general elections combined with European and locals in 1979. In the last 18 years we’ve only had 4 general elections though we’ve had 3 locals and Euros. 7 elections in 18 years versus 5 in 5 years. Change needs churn.

    In a weird way politics follows rules similar to a tv show or play with a maximum number of prominent players at any one time. (I think 7 is the rule of thumb for tv shows) you have to wait for people to depart from the scene before a position opens up and with the geographically based nature of our elections it has to happen in the right place too. If Lucinda Creighton had gone to UCC would she be a TD today?

  3. @Emma It’s interesting, urban areas do tend to be more gender balanced in a lot of countries. Further research is required to tease out the various underlying contextual factors at play here, but one can hypothesise. An urban-commuter-belt-rural divide also tends to emerge in general elections and subsequent representation patterns (16 out the 23 women currently in the Dáil represent constituencies in Dublin and Leinster, for example). There is a commute advantage involved here for women with children, but the same obviously can’t be said for women in local government. The traditional cultural and social influences inhibiting the supply and demand of women may be stronger in the more rural areas. This hypothesis would suggest that candidate selectors in rural areas tend to be more conservative on gender roles than their urban counterparts, or that urban women are more likely to seek a nomination to run for political office than women in traditional rural Ireland. Urban women may also find it easier to build up a local base of support and strong networks ahead of election conventions or elections. Also, because female candidates are often marginally more likely to come from a professional background than their male counterparts, there may be a greater ‘eligibility pool’ of such women in the urban and commuter-belt areas.

    @Daniel Unfortunately the data collection didn’t go into that level of detail, although it’s interesting and something that I’m going to work on over the next while. Definitely agree, incumbency is a huge barrier preventing new women (and men) from entering the system, and could be accentuated for smaller parties who only have so many open seats to give out in the first place.

  4. Changes in constituency size seem to have played a significant role in the three Dublin inner city areas, after the Local Electoral Area Boundary Committee recommended that each of them gain an additional seat. This seems to have opened up space for a number of fresh young faces to enter the system. Research has shown that higher district magnitudes do tend to be more favourable to women candidates. In relation to the whole country, an analysis that I carried out revealed some interesting patterns. The success rate for female candidates in 2009 stood at 16.7% in 3-seaters (although there were only three of these), 44.7% in 4-seaters, 43.8% in 5-seaters, 48.8% in 6-seaters, and was as high as 61.9% 7-seaters (compared to a national average of 46.8%). These figures would of course need to be compared to the success rates of male candidates, but are interesting in themselves.

  5. ” I love this sort of hard data, I’m being cheeky but what was the % of male/female for the parties when incumbents were removed from consideration. One of the big drags on increasing female participation in elections and on their actual election is the very large factor that incumbency can bring.”

    That would be an interesting study alright, incumbency
    was highlighted as a significant factor in re-election
    of women candidates.

    I am disappointed that so few women incumbents favour
    a gender quota in the related report also (below) , I
    have nothad time to study it all yet BUT one hopes some
    degree of modelling or mentoring (at the very least)
    would be a positive option regarding bringing women into
    politics -especially with the huge gaps in age/experience
    from currently available figures.

    Maybe we should be looking at how women retain their seats
    over a specific time-period also, given the few high-profile
    resignations of women (especially from the Green Party) in
    recent times.

    It would be interesting to study the difficulties
    inherent in women’s professional political lives because
    there seem to be many obstacles there to overcome.

  6. Interesting question Emma; at this stage we could hypothesise a few factors that might be related to the relatively higher levels of successful female candidates in urban constituencies but couldn’t make any definite claims on this at present. Would suggest you ask Claire about this again in a few years time when she is close to finishing her PhD studies!

    Dan, very interesting question…so interesting that I did a bit data anlaysis this mornign to try and answer your questions! Initial post has now been amended to include details on male and female incumbents in the 2009 local elections.

  7. Adrian, I missed the update to this post until only this week. It makes interesting reading (or I could be misreading it) that when incumbency is removed as a factor that as many women get elected as a percentage of those who ran as did the men. Meaning that we need to get more women to run and they will stand ever chance of being elected.

    And I’ve no problem with measures that would broaden things out to have more female candidates provided it is not done on the basis for reducing the opportunities for male candidates either.

    I’d outlined in a previous comment that using PR-STV to select who (as an individual) would get elected but a national top up to ensure parties didn’t lose out by running more candidates would allow for parties to run say 4 women and 4 men in a 4 seater. That would increase choice for both men and women on an equal basis.

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