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.
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.