By Claire McGing (on behalf of the PSAI Gender and Politics specialist group)
The recent failure of the talented Labour Dublin City councillor Rebecca Moynihan to win a nomination to run in Dublin South-Central in the upcoming general election (the three candidates who were selected are all male councillors) has once again raised questions about the lack of female candidates in Irish elections. Women have always been a minority in Irish electoral contests and subsequent sites of political representation. That is not to say that there are not other demographic deficits in politics – there is also a distinct lack of candidates and politicians from groups such as the youth, the working class, the disabled, etc. However, women make up 51% of the Irish population and cross-cut all other groups, yet not even a third of candidates for any of the parties in the last general election were female. Only 17.4% of those that ran in 2007 were female and this actually marked a decrease of 0.7% on the 2002 figure. Strikingly, Fianna Fáil ran no women in 29 constituencies (67% of constituencies) in 2007, while Fine Gael ran none in 30 (70%). Overall women made up 13.1% (14/107) of Fianna Fáil candidates and 16.5% (15/91) of those than ran for Fine Gael. While 22% of Labour candidates were women, the party ran no women in 32 constituencies (74%). Looking at the rest, women made up 25% of Green Party candidates (11/44), 24.4% of Sinn Féin candidates (10/41), 23.3% of PD candidates (7/30) and 12.8% of Independent and ‘Other’ candidates (14/109). Five constituencies (12% of total) had no female candidates at all and these varied geographically – Cork South-West, Dublin North-East, Limerick West, Meath West and Roscommon South-Leitrim.
Where are all the women candidates? Norris and Lovenduski (1995) argue that there are two levels of barriers hindering better female electoral participation. ‘Supply-side’ explanations suggest that factors exist that prevent women from seeking the nomination in the first place. ‘Demand-side’ explanations attribute more of the blame to the selectorate, arguing that political parties are not actively seeking women to run for whatever reason (be it out of a lack of opportunity structures in a given constituency or because of direct or indirect discrimination against women). In reality both levels are intertwined. This came to the fore in a 2009 Oireachtas report called Women’s Participation in Politics by the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women’s Rights. It identified the five main challenges (the Five C’s) hindering politically-aspirant women.
Childcare was identified as a significant obstacle for women. The report argued that women in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland are still presumed to bear the primary responsibility for children (which raises issues beyond the scope of formal politics about the need to look at the issue of paternity leave). This can impact on their ability to participate in branch level politics and in building up a local base of support. The gendered burden also impacts on female representatives in the Oireachtas itself. A survey of women politicians by Knight et al (2004) found that the ‘long hours culture’ of Leinster House was unfriendly to women with young children. This problem may also a geographical element given that 69% of women TDs at present (16 out of 23) are located in the Dublin-Leinster area, suggesting that this disincentive may be exacerbated for women that would have to be away from home from Tuesday to Thursday. There is a crèche in Leinster House but this is of no benefit to such women. Since they are not employees, statutory maternity leave is not available to women TDs and senators that get pregnant in office. The report recommends the introduction of automatic pairing arrangements to deal with this.
The second C, cash or the lack of it, can cause problems for aspirants of either gender. However, this may adversely affect women who still earn 22% less than men (The Equality Authority, 2009). The report also notes that male candidates may have networks that are favourable to them in financial terms, such as economic networks. The gendered funding issue may also be related to women prioritising their funds in favour of their children. In the course of my own PhD research on women’s experiences of candidate selection and political life, a number of the women TDs that I have spoken to have told me that women are more likely to put off a political career in favour of funding their children’s education. As one said to me, “If women you know have other family commitments, sometimes the education of children and so on, they will often by their very nature put them first and say look, I’ll just do that maybe another time. Whereas men are more ambitious, they see huge career opportunities, straight line to promotion without obstacles along the way”.
The gendered culture of Irish politics from the grassroots right up to Leinster House was also identified by the report as hindering women’s participation. As Professor Yvonne Galligan (2009) noted in her presentation to the sub-committee, “As parties are mainly led and run by men, the culture of behaviour and informally accepted norms of language, views and expressions can mean that parties can be uncomfortable places for women to be. Party networks too are often more at the disposal of aspiring men than women, and networks of influence and economic support are important elements in securing a nomination to run and in financing a campaign”. The report refers to the fact that branch meetings are often held in pubs, an environment that some women may find intimidating, or times that are unsuitable for women with young children.
The influence of political culture is linked to the next C – confidence. Given that the stereotypical politician on TV, in the newspaper and on the doorstep is a man, women tend to be less confident about running because they feel less connected and familiar with the world of politics. This may be a bigger problem for women that don’t come from families with a background in electoral politics. Research suggests that a sufficient number of visible women candidates and politicians can encourage women’s political engagement and interest in the campaign and in running for election (Atkeson, 2003; Karp and Banducci, 2008) Yet with the exceptions of a handful of high profile political women over the past decade, Irish women tend to lack a sufficient number of strong role models. At present just under 50% of Irish women have no female TD to represent them, whereas 100% of men have a male TD to represent them (McGing, 2010). Mentoring programmes run by each individual party where interested women would be matched up with a current woman TD or senator might help them to gain more confidence.
Candidate selection was identified by the committee as the biggest obstacle for women. At the end of the day, it is the parties and their members who are the ‘gatekeepers’ and who filter the majority of aspiring candidates down the few names that appear on our ballot papers. The other ‘C’s’ influence the supply and demand of potential women candidates. While few international studies have indicated that parties are directly biased against women, they tend to be biased in favour of certain types of candidates – often those with political experience, be it at a branch, council or parliamentary level. Since women are less likely to possess this experience (only 16% of councillors at present are women for example), it creates a vicious in which they find it difficult to be selected. Mandatory electoral gender quotas, whereby parties would have to run a certain percentage of women or face some kind of a penalty, would see swift change.
What are the prospects for a better gender balance in 2011? Although there are still a large number of conventions to be held (Fianna Fáil is to hold more than 30 conventions over the next few weeks), Dr. Adrian Kavanagh has calculated that only 16.4% of those selected to date are women. Going on available figures, Fine Gael have so far selected 5 women out of 35 candidates (14.3%), while Labour is currently running 12 women out of 52 (23.1%). Without the use of some kind of legalised electoral gender quota and other reforms, it seems likely that the average candidate next spring and the subsequent make up of the 31st Dáil will just be a continuation of the status quo – male, middle-class, middle-aged and most likely a former/current TD, councillor or senator. Last Tuesday’s budget proposals were particularly bad for women, third level students, children and the poorest in Irish society. In the nature of justice (Phillips, 1995), and in order to bring a more diverse range of interests, issues and concerns to the discourses of parliament (Mansbridge, 1999; Young, 1990), we need to ensure that our elected representatives look more like society as a whole and we need political parties to act on reducing the representative deficit when selecting their candidates. Reforming the system to allow and encourage more participation by the other half of our population would be a good start.