Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Irish Politics: The 85/15 Gender Divide

Whilst women are no long chained to the kitchen sink, female participation in the Irish political arena is diminutive.
Half of the Irish population are female, yet our democratic society affords us a government in which only 15% of seats in Dáil Éireann are held by women. These statistics show that Irish women are still not pari passu to men in the political arena. Ironically, this meagre 15% constitutes a record high for women’s representation in Dáil Éireann. In the world rankings of women’s parliamentary representation, Ireland is now ranked in 109th place out of a possible 190 nations. In the EU, Ireland is ranked in 23rd place out of 27 EU member states.
Dáil Éireann has always been a predominantly male playing field. Like the ‘Yorkie’ chocolate bar, it too could boast the infamous ‘It’s not for girls’ slogan. In the history of the state, at least 85% of the government has always been male.
In 1918, Irish women exercised their right to vote for the first time, and in doing so, elected the first woman to parliament, Constance Markievicz. In the 95 years that have since passed, a mere 91 women have been elected to serve in Dáil Éireann. At present, there are no women TDs in 21 of the 43 constituencies.
Enough statistics! What is it that constrains women from entering the political sphere in Ireland?
Senator Ivana Bacik conducted a study in 2009 to find the barriers hindering women’s involvement in politics. Senator Bacik documented five reasons women choose not to actively engage in politics. They were cleverly coined the 5C’s.
Candidate selection: Political parties often act as gate-keepers in the selection of women candidates.
Care: A biased towards traditional gender roles still exist in Ireland.
Confidence: Despite Irish women having a higher educational success than men, they lack the confidence to enter the political forum.
Culture: In Ireland, a political culture of male dominance prevails.
Cash: The reigning gender pay gap ensures it is men that have access to greater financial resources.
Despite the waning influence of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, and a conscious move from a conservative to a more secular society, Article 41 of Bunreacht na hÉireann confined the role of the woman to the domestic domain. The notion of a woman as a ‘bread-winner’ was considered absurd, instead, their place was considered to be in the home. In 2012, the Central Statistics Offices released its 2011 figures revealing that the role of the carer in the home predominantly falls on the female; 500,000 women were looking after family compared with a minute 9,600 men.
The gender pay gap also lingers on in Ireland. A European Commission report released last year detailed that Irish women earn 17% less than their male counterparts. Discrimination against women, undervaluing of women’s skills, and a low number of women in senior and leadership positions were cited as reasons for this pay gap. These motivations also reflect why women refrain from entering politics.
President Michael D. Higgins, an advocate for progressive change on equal pay for women, alluded to the fact that women outperform men in educational attainment. The highest percentage of women graduates in Europe are Irish. Women, he asserted, should be given a greater role in the new economic model that is being built in Ireland to replace the one that has failed.
Consistent with his optimism for greater female political involvement, President Michael D. Higgins signed The Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act into law on July, 28th 2012. This act tackles the under-representation of women in Irish politics. 30% of all party candidates must now be female at the time of the next general election; the figure increases to 40% seven years thereafter. The penalty for parties that fail to adhere to this act is a cut to their state funding.
Averil Power, a Senator in Seanad Éireann, provides an insight into the female mentality, saying “It simply never occurs to many women that running for election is something they could do”. It was the desire to achieve social change and tackle inequality that saw Senator Power enter politics.
 “The research shows that women need to be asked and encouraged to put themselves forward for election. Political parties in general have not been proactive enough rather than approaching potential female candidates and encouraging them to run”, Senator Power says when discussing the candidate selection.
A salient obstacle for women opting for a political career is the work-life balance. Unlike other employers, the pressures, the workload and working hours associated with a political career can be off-putting. “There is no entitlement to maternity leave for female TDs or Senators”, explains Senator Power. There is a lack of adequate support systems and facilities in place for women who are attempting to juggle family life with politics.
Sacrifices must be made at present if as a female you wish to pursue a career in politics. When Olwyn Enright, widely regarded as a successful politician, announced her decision to quit politics she cited family reasons as the main influence “With a young family, I will not be in a position to give enormous commitment required and that my constituents deserve”. Family reasons are never mentioned when a male politician steps down.
Without affirmative action Senator Power does not envisage that the number of women involved in politics will ever grow in the future to equal that of their male counterparts. Research conducted suggests that there is conviction in Senator Power’s outlook, as only five more women were elected in 2011 than in 1992. 
Evidence signals a positive element of female political involvement. Females active in politics very often become role models for other women. To them, they are confident figureheads, and many revere in their courage, strength and contributions to the political forum. Notable examples in Irish society include Constance Markievicz, Mary Robinson, Mary McAleese and Mary O’Rourke. Female political involvement must not be but a history lesson. Gender balance in the Irish government is gravely important for our country’s future.
Of the 4,744 Dáil seats filled since 1918, only 260 of those have been occupied by women, and only 86 women during this time have served in Seanad Éireann. These are not statistics to be proud of. It may be time the government reviewed the 85/15 Gender Divide that currently exists in Dáil Éireann.

The Forgotten Irish Graduate, 10 April 2013