Women in Irish politics: why so few and are quotas the answer?

By Claire McGing (John and Pat Hume scholar and Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences scholar (IRCHSS), NUI Maynooth)

Electoral politics inIrelandis a highly masculine realm. In total, only 91 women deputies have been elected since the foundation of the State (Buckley and McGing, forthcoming). The country currently has one of the worst gender balances in its parliament in the democratic world. Following the 2011 general election, women hold 25 seats out of 166 in the 31st Dáil, representing a figure of just 15.1%. Although low, this is a record high for the number of women elected in a general election inIreland. Progress in the lower house has been extremely slow to transpire in recent years. Significant progress was made between 1977 and 1992 where the percentage of female TDs increased from 4.1 to 12%. However, progress since then has remained generally static, with only five more women TDs elected in 2011 than had been in 1992.

Barriers to women’s representation

There are five main challenges hindering the adequate political participation and representation of women in Irelandand elsewhere: childcare, cash, culture, confidence and candidate selection.

Womanhood in Irish society continues to be closely intermingled with a strong ‘caring’ role. The conceptualisation of women as child-bearers and homemakers first and foremost was cemented and reinforced through the agency of the State and the influence it bestowed on the Roman Catholic Church. Reflecting the view of the Church on the role of women, the word ‘mother’ is used interchangeably with the word ‘woman’ in Article 41 of the 1937 Irish Constitution.

Despite considerable advances in their socio-economic position over the past thirty years, evidence illustrates that Irish women are still presumed to bear the primary responsibility for the private sphere. The 2010 Women and Men in Ireland report  (CSO, 2011) showed that while the employment rate by gender was similar for those without children (85.7% for males and 86.3% for females), it drops dramatically for women once they have children. While 80.2% of men whose youngest child is aged three or under are in employment, the respective figure for women falls to 56%. Many women balance work and family life by taking up part-time employment. Women represent approximately three-quarters of those who worked up to 29 hours per week in paid employment in 2010 and this goes some way in explaining the persistence of the gender wage gap. Women earn just under 70% of the average male income and this increases to 90% when one adjusts for average hours worked.  

All of this means that women are more likely to lack two of the key resources required to nurture a political career – time and funding. Given that a strong local base of support is usually required for a successful nomination bid and subsequent election in Ireland, women may not have the flexibility or economic independence to develop a bailiwick stronghold to same level as men do. A survey of women Oireachtas members by Galligan et al (2000) illustrates this. 67% of those surveyed felt that ‘family care responsibilities’ had been the biggest personal source of difficulty in achieving political office, while 49% said that ‘lack of funding’ had been their most significant political barrier.

Childcare responsibilities can continue to pose a problem for women with young children once they are elected to the Oireachtas, especially those living outside of the Greater Dublin area (Interestingly, 18 females TDs at present  (72%) represent a constituency in Dublin or Leinster). Theories of institutional masculinity suggest that political assemblies are intrinsically masculine in that they continuously reproduce the gender norms inherent at their (mostly male) foundation. A culture of masculinity is embedded in Irish politics, with norms and behaviours at all levels tending to favour a male lifestyle. Not surprisingly then, another survey of female parliamentarians shows substantial support women for ‘family friendly’ reforms in the Oireachtas, such as an earlier start to proceedings, the mandatory ending of business by an earlier time and a ‘committee only’ day (Knight et al, 2004).

Women may be less confident about pursuing a political career because they feel disconnected from politics and hence don’t see themselves as ‘natural’ representatives. Some US studies show that the increased presence of female candidates and elected representatives can help to mobilise women and stimulate their interest in politics.

These factors all come together at the stage that is most crucial to women’s representation – the candidate selection process. The norm in liberal democracies is for political parties to act as ‘gatekeepers’ in that they recruit election candidates (bar those that decide to run as independents) and, according to Lovenduski (2005), this ensures that party masculinity is mapped onto representation. It is useful to analyse the role of party recruitment in terms of a model of ‘supply and demand’ (Norris and Lovenduski, 1995). Demand is influenced by the political opportunity structure in a given constituency, such the number of seat vacancies, as well as the selector’s own attitudes and their perceptions on the ‘type’ of candidates voters prefer. Although research shows that Irish voters do not discriminate against women candidates once certain factors are controlled for, the demographic homogeneity of parliament may influence the views of the selectorate and an inbuilt bias may exist towards running candidates who most closely resemble the male party elite. Supply-side explanations, on the other hand, ‘suggest that the outcome reflects the supply of applicants wishing to pursue a political career’ (Norris and Lovenduski, 1995: 15). This is conditioned by the availability (or lack) of resources (such political experience, time, funds and networks) and motivational factors (interest, confidence and ambition). Parties frequently say that they would love to have run more women but that ‘not enough came forward’.

In reality, issues of supply and demand interact in the course of the recruitment process and this can be clearly seen in the Irish case. Candidate selection here has tended to be significantly influenced by the local party organisations. The prevalence of a localistic political culture has meant that these local organisations tend to continuously reselect incumbents who have been successful in building up strong local bailiwick votes. This may have a bearing on the low number of women in the Dáil given that challenging women may find it hard to be selected without having a ‘machine’ of support. The criteria required to be selected is pragmatic – a track record of winning votes. If a challenger, a strong local reputation is usually the norm. Candidates, both male and female, have achieved this through the means of local government experience or through utilising kinship ties to elected representatives, providing them with ready-made capital in the form of networks that can be mobilised. A record of active local party membership too tends to be an advantage, while the GAA has also provided a significant base for some in building up a local reputation in rural constituencies. This can all act to benefit politically-aspirant men and disadvantage women. Only 16% of county and city council seats are held by women, while they comprise of about a third on average of the membership of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour and an even smaller percentage still hold branch or constituency level positions. The GAA is likewise a highly masculine domain and their local ‘sporting heroes’ are usually men. Although there are examples to the contrary, parties more seem reluctant to recruit candidates from community level politics, presumably because they have not been ‘socialised’ within the typical environments. Yet it tends to be at this scale that female political participation thrives. The NWCI, for example, have over 150 women’s groups listed as members. Therefore, the spheres from which election candidates are recruited are considerably male-dominated, so the ‘supply’ of potential female candidates is limited. Nevertheless, it seems that there is little demand for them either. Party headquarters, for example, do hold the power to balance party tickets by adding further candidates and could therefore use this function to try and facilitate a higher percentage of women by actively recruiting them. Constituency organisations often resent interference from the party elite and attempts to ‘parachute’ a candidate can be met with unpopularity. However, the larger political parties did take advantage of this power for their 2011 general election selections, although rarely did they use it to achieve a better demographic balance of candidates, in terms of gender or otherwise, with geographical considerations usually the main reasoning behind their choice. Of the 27 candidates added after selection conventions, only five (18.5%) of these were female, suggesting that there is currently little commitment at either a party elite or a grassroots level to ensure a better candidacy gender balance.

Strategies for gender balance

Lovenduski (2005) argues that there are three strategies available to actors wish to see an increase in the presence of women in political assemblies – equality rhetoric, equality promotion, and equality guarantees.

Equality rhetoric is the public acceptance of women’s claims and examples can be found in party manifestos and in the speeches and writings of political leaders. With elites publicly acknowledging that the lack of women in decision-making is a problem that needs to be addressed, an equality discourse emerges and make strategies for change seem possible. However, equality rhetoric falls short of implementing these measures.

Equality promotion is the introduction of ‘soft’ measures to try and bring more women into the formal political sphere. Examples include setting targets for the presence of women in future, awareness raising campaigns, supports for politically aspiring women such as training, mentoring programmes, networks and financial assistance, funding women’s advocacy groups and including them in consultations, and governments signing international treaties on women’s equality. By offering encouragement and attempting to break down some of the barriers they may face, these strategies are directed primarily at the supply of potential women candidates.

Recognising that political parties are the main gatekeepers to women’s representation, equality guarantees, on the other hand, focus on the demand for female candidates. Electoral gender quotas are an example of such a measure and ensure that a certain percentage of women are nominated to run or are elected. Quotas are often regarded as a ‘fast track’ strategy for political gender balance, as opposed to an ‘incremental track’ strategy which perceives that equal representation should be allowed to run its natural course (The NWCI has calculated that it will take approximately 370 years before a 50:50 gender balance is seen in the Dáil!). Although controversial, over 100 countries worldwide have introduced some form of gender quota.

Gender quotas

Quotas vary in type and can generally be defined along two dimensions: the level of the electoral process and the mandate (Dahlerup, 2007). Looking at the level, regulations can aim to affect the pool of potential candidates (called the aspirants), the candidates that stand for election, or those that are elected (reserved seats). A distinction can also be made with regard to the mandate. While some quotas are legally mandated by constitutional or legislative change, and are hence binding for all political parties in a state and usually include sanctions for non-compliance, other quotas are voluntary and adopted by the individual political parties themselves. Voluntary quotas require a high level of commitment from a number of different parties to see a significant increase in female representation levels in a given country. Both types of candidate quotas are contextual in that they must be designed to fit with the electoral system in place to work. If not, they are purely symbolic.

Reserved seats models are becoming increasingly common in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, but would be too controversial in the West and may breach EU equality law. Voluntary party quotas are the most frequently used form worldwide and are especially popular in democratic countries. Mandatory or legislated quotas are frequently used in semi-democratic countries with quotas, although five countries in the European Union have also implemented them –Belgium, France, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain.

In 2009 an Oireachtas sub-committee report, Women’s Participation in Politics, called for the introduction of mandatory electoral gender quotas in Ireland to see a significant increase in the percentage of women candidates running in elections at all levels, along with a number of other measures. The proposed quota would ensure that all political parties run no more than two-thirds of their candidates of one gender or face a financial penalty by losing a certain percentage of their annual state funding, modelled on the French Parity Law. The proposal also included a ‘sunset clause’ wherein the law would lapse once the percentage of women in political assemblies stabilised at a certain percentage.

The suggestion of gender quotas is often met with controversy and this can currently be seen in the Irish case. Not all women agree with them, nor do all feminists. Quotas are an example of affirmative action. By making it possible to leap over certain barriers and with the potential for offsetting substantial change, some critics see quotas as preferential treatment for women and argue that ‘merited’ men may lose out at the nomination stage in favour of ‘token’ females and that they restrict voter choice. Advocates refute this, pointing out that it is political parties in the main that select who the suitable candidates are, saying that quotas therefore expand voter choice.


Although undoubtedly controversial, mandatory gender quotas, along the lines of what was proposed by the Oireachtas sub-committee and in a similar vein to those used in five EU member states, must be considered a viable in future if we want to see a better gender balance on our ballot papers in future elections. In fact the 2011 Programme for Government include a proposal (taken from the Labour manifesto) to link state funding of political parties to the number of women candidates a party selects, although no specific threshold has been outlined as of yet. The route to parliamentary life in Ireland is very often a localised one and this can disadvantage politically ambitious women. Mandatory quotas would allow them to overcome some of these barriers, shaking up the status quo by ensuring that parties have to actively seek out and recruit talented female candidates. However, quotas on their own won’t solve all the problems. If women, for example, have trouble combining a family life with politics or are less confident about pursing a political career, quotas will not overcome this. Quotas must be used in conjunction with other ‘soft’ measures to see real change such as civic education programmes, mentoring and training programmes, and financial supports.

17 thoughts on “Women in Irish politics: why so few and are quotas the answer?

  1. Great summary of the topic, Claire – it’s particularly important to note that there are dimensions on which quotas differ, so the debate is more complex than qoutas versus no quotas.

    Also, you draw attention to the ‘sunset clause’ aspect of the Sub Committee recommendations – do you have any details on how that would work in practice?

  2. A quota system could include a ballot paper split in half were one half is just women, with a set number of seats allocated to that candidates, ie half the seats in that constituency, with the remaining half of the ballot paper made of other candidates who can be men or women but if you do not vote for the candidates in the half for the women’s quota then your ballot paper is spoiled.

    But more importantly if there is to be great female involvement at all levels of society there has to be a sea change in attitudes among females themselves in that it is other women who judge women on what they wear, who’s minding the children, doing the housework, are you staying fit for your husband (I never hear them ask if the husband/partner staying fit so as to keep the woman) etc and for those women who do have ambitions to lose the chip on their shoulder and make their partners step up to the plate to shoulder a fair share of the burden for childcare etc.

  3. Why are there even fewer female independent candidates (as well as so few of them elected)? Are there different factors at play for those outside of the party circle? Marion Harkin in 2002 seems to have been the first female independent elected who was not closely related to a previous TD. Two/Four (depending on definition of independent) others have since followed her path: Catherine Murphy and Maureen O’Sullivan, as well as Clare Daly and Joan Collins of the ULA in 2011.

  4. This issue of low level of participation is first and foremost the direct and sole responsibility of the leaderships of our political parties. Are you guys attempting to let those ‘guys’ and their sycophantic acolytes off-the-hook?

    The concept of quotas – for anything, is the message of failure. If you have ever been an active member of an Irish political party you will understand the complexity of the problem – and how it could (but will not) be resolved.

    And, please do not blame PR-STV!


  5. Excellent piece. The broader definition of quotas was particularly beneficial. It is encouraging to hear the issues so accurately articulated. I can directly relate to the childcare issues. I never saw quotas alone as being constructive but when combined with the other hurdles that women encounter I begin to appreciate their value.

  6. I realise this is a minefield. Anyone who doesn’t get with an affirmative action programme on gender equality is immediately labelled a sexist, chauvinist pog. I agree that there are barriers to female participation in the political process, but, to some extent, there has to be some lack of desire to participate – or interest in participating. And these may be more than learned or socially imposed responses. It could be a perfectly rational response for any woman surveying the political scene to observe that the only positions of genuine power and influence are those of An Taoiseach and cabinet ministers and to conclude that the probability of securing one of these positions is vanishingly small. Or to conclude that the behaviour required to even be in the running is de-humanising. Or that positions of power and influence may be secured outside of the political sphere. There has to be some mix of constraints and of a perfectly rational assessment of the cost/benefits of participation.

    Only when career-advancing options as a public representative outside of the cabinet are provided, will it be possible to get a better handle on this mix and to determine to what extent quotas are required.

    • I don’t understand how someone interested in politics could write such a response. Should Joe Higgins, Luke Flanagan, Finian McGrath etc be labelled as plain dumb to even bother running for the Dail? The under-representation of women in the Dail is undemocratic because gender matters. Any group that is dominated by one gender is unbalanced. We use geographical quotas in our elections so that every part of the island has their fair share of representation – why should it be different for women?

      • @ CF: “The under-representation of women in the Dail is undemocratic because gender matters.”

        Colette, the demand for gender quotas is the message of failure. If the leaders of the various political parties in this state wanted a greater participation of women, they would arrange it so.

        Its sort of funny, in a peculiar manner. What proponents of a female gender quota are actually demanding, is a negative male quota. Do you really think that will get even a millisecond of political attention? No, I thought not.

        Gender matters Colette, but its related to reproduction of the species. Not politics.


  7. Good article! Very comprehensive.

    Am loath to comment as this topic is a bit of a powder keg! And the reasons for low female representation are multi-factorial and not so easy to pin down. The voters themselves don’t appear to be unduly biased for/against any particular sex. Is party selection a factor? Not necessarily. Approximately 15% of candidates in the last election were female. However, amongst independent candidates the proportion was even lower at around 10%. However, dynastic patterns might indicate to the contrary. In the last Dáil, approximately 25% of TDs could be considered to belong to a political “dynasty”. Amongst female TDs, this proportion rises to nearly 50%, which would indicate female representation outside established political families is at shockingly low levels.

    My worry about quotas is that the reasons for level female participation are not well understood. Party selection is not necessarily to blame. Unless some of these supply-side factors are also identified and addressed, then whilst quotas would indeed increase female representation levels, the subset of society these TDs are drawn from may remain as narrow as before.

    As something of an aside, it’s fairly clear from article 16 of the constitution that any hard gender based quotas for the Dáil would be unconstitutional, which is why softer quotas based on the carrot of conditional state funding are mooted instead. Am not a lawyer, but I’d wonder if much harder gender quotas would be possible for the Seanad. I’d suspect from article 18 that legislation requiring parties to have equal numbers of male and female Seanad candidates would not be unconstitutional. The constitutional articles about the Seanad are actually quite vague. There are only a small number of concrete requirements, e.g. there have to be the five named panels with 5-11 seats in each and the elections (aside from the 11 Taoiseach’s nominess) have to be by secret PR-STV postal ballots. There’s nothing to stop the 43 panel seats being thrown open to direct election by the public (maybe every voter could register for one of the panels). The vote for the six university seats could be thrown open to graduates of all institutes of higher education (a referendum over 30 years ago made this possible). I also can’t see any reason why Seanad elections couldn’t be held on the same day as Dáil elections. A person running for the Seanad also has to be eligible to be a TD, but not necessarily vice versa. Therefore, I can’t see why further legislative restrictions couldn’t be put on Seanad membership, e.g. banning anyone who was a member of the previous Dáil or anyone who even ran in the previous Dáil election from being in the new Seanad. And similarly for gender quotas. I can’t see any constitutional bar (at least for the Seanad) to legislatively requiring parties to field equal numbers of male and female candidates. Such a measure would likely result at least 25+ female Oireachtas members in part-time Seanad roles (perhaps friendlier for those juggling a family and career). But all this is probably moot anyway, if the Seanad is abolished next year.

  8. @Finbar Lehane,

    You’re probably taking us a bit off-topic in your comments on An Seanad, but your point about its imminent demise is very relevant. While in opposition, An Taoiseach’s declarations to reduce the number of TDs and to abolish An Seanad, without any apparent consultation within the party or outside, were designed by FG High Command to demonstrate his political virility and determination to make bold decisions.

    He will find it very hard to do a U-turn now. So the appointment of An Taoiseach’s “11” is quite interesting – to a Seanad that’s under sentence of death.

    The appointment of the ‘wethecitizens’ chairperson suggests that the Government views the exercise as totally ineffectual and harmless. But, in any event, all the bases have been covered. Getting it inside the tent limits any possibility it might prove a nuisance and if it does do something useful it can be absorbed easily.

    What a cunning, crafty move by FG’s High Command.

    • @Paul Hunt
      Yes, a little bit off-topic! 🙂 But, nonetheless, the Seanad could be a useful and less controversial test-bed for gender quotas. I speculated that perhaps some forms of stronger gender quota might be possible for it even within the constraints of the current constitution.

      And on the appointment of Fiach Mac Conghail to the Seanad, yes, I noted this with interest yesterday. While I’m wearing my rose-tinted spectacles, I may suppose that Enda Kenny is now all fully on board with the reform agenda and this is evidence of it. This does indeed bring the ‘wethecitizens’ exercise into the tent. I have previously said positive things here about its academic panel. But IMO its board, aside from a certain tinge from Chuck Feeney’s influence, is deeply establishment, albeit composed, I judge, of some of its more well-meaning and socially-aware aspects. I’m sure they are as worried as any about the anger out there and what the unfolding economic crisis may bring in future years, but they are establishment nonetheless. So, it’s open to question whether they were actually outside the tent at all to begin with. But, nevertheless, this is a win-win situation for FG no matter what happens. A very astute and shrewd move! It clasps this exercise very firmly to its chest in a broad and wide embrace. Perhaps they are even prepared to engage with this exercise to a degree!? But also advantageous to keep an eye on things on the chance something awkward might come out of it. And the optics look good: the government is very visibly seen to give a thumbs-up to the reform agenda.

      • @FL: “the government is very visibly seen to give a thumbs-up to the reform agenda.”

        If you are standing upright – its a ‘thumbs down’. 🙂


      • @Brian Woods
        It just all depends on the particular angle one is looking at things I suppose! 😉

  9. A regrettably flawed article.

    “main challenges hindering the adequate political participation and representation of women in Irelandand elsewhere: childcare, cash, culture, confidence and candidate selection.”

    This point of view completely ignores one of the leading causes of the balance between men and women in politics, which is ‘Choice’.

    The desire by left wing political philosophy to view men and women as basically ‘equivalent’ rather than ‘equal’ is at the heart of this. Viewing women as ‘men who don’t have the same opportunities’ is a fundamentally flawed philosophy.

    Women do not always want the same things as men. Women have different priorities, on the whole. Women have different interests and a different philosophy of their roles in life and to life in general.

    So while many women do chose to be involved in politics, and many would chose to get involved but cannot because of logistical restrictions, a significant segment of women do not want to be involved in politics and that segment has always been and will always be much higher than the same segment of men.

    So while logistical problems are an issue that any democratic society should be tackling as a way of empowering women to make choices, there is no evidence whatsoever that the other hindrances exist.

    Ms McGing suggests that confidence is an issue because women do not put themselves forward. I refute this completely. There is far more evidence that more women just do not have any interest in putting themselves forward, than lack any confidence. Women make choices that arise from the fact that they bear children; a fundamentally different life-role to men. No amount of ‘freedom from restriction’ will ever change that. Women more often chose nurturing roles because they are women, not men. Men and women are not interchangeable.

    Candidate selection, as a ‘problem’, is in my view a fallacy. There is no evidence in Ireland that women are not chosen because they are women and not men. Even the analysis above, which is highly subjective across the board, demonstrates that the ‘nature’ of politics is the greatest determining factor. The ‘nature’ of politics is voraciously demanding of time and commitment. Women are far more likely to reject that commitment because they have other priorities in their lives, NOT just because of logistics.

    So do we completely change society or change the ‘nature’ of politics ? How on earth is that possible ? The answer is No. It simply cannot be changed to favour less time and commitment…. That is the nature not only of politics but of human society, not just irish or democratic society.

    Quotas and lists and other artificial constructs are inherently patronising and insulting to women as well as being insulting and prejudicial to men.

    Women are well able to stand on their two feet. Women are well able to be chosen on their merit. By all means eradicate logistical obstacles. By all means encourage and attract women into politics. By all means try to make politics more attractive to women .. but …

    The desire to construct a world where every facet of society must reflect the 50:50 split of men:women is a completely false one. It is a false one and deeply misguided one. It denies the fundamentally different nature of women and men. It denies women their own nature and choices, and it denies men the same.

    • “Ms McGing suggests that confidence is an issue because women do not put themselves forward. I refute this completely. There is far more evidence that more women just do not have any interest in putting themselves forward, than lack any confidence.”

      Have you any references for this evidence? I’ve yet to come across a study to illustrate that women overall as a group are just not interested.

  10. If people wanted a women to represent them they would vote for the female candidates.

    The real issue is that in what way are women different to men? We hear women would decide things in a different way to men and make better decisions. For example all the macho men’s ego’s were at stake when the country was beached but none of them could admit they were wrong.

    But can anyone give an example of any women who was selected or elected who offered anything that was different from any of the grey men who get through?

    Look at the 2011 intake – to a woman, every single one of them jumped on the expenses bandwagon, not one of them of any side had the ethic standards to publish receipts for their expenses, not one of them came up with a bill that would change how the Oireachtas works or is run, even if they had no chance of getting it through – the fact they tried would have been a start.

    But nothing, they all behave the exact same as their male colleagues. None of them is even honest enough to engage in a debate openly, they are media managed to within an inch.

    Are their hoards of women waiting the wings to take the place of Betty Ford and give a direct honest answer to a question? I doubt it. What we have instead of Mary Hanafin refusing to leave the stage and go do something else with her life. Frances FitzGerald in line to replace Kenny, not because she brings anything different female to the role, but because she is so bland she stands for nothing and will offend no one.

    Rock on sisters!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s