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Women in Irish Politics Essay

This essay will examine why there are so few women in politics and if gender quotas could be the solution. Women make up over half of the Irish electorate but yet remain markedly underrepresented in the Dail and in wider political debate. Political debate in Ireland has been dominated by male voices over the years and because of this over half of our entire population’s opinions have been drowned out to some degree. The Dail has always been at the very least 84% male. This is one of the highest percentages of male politicians that make up a parliament in the world.

Ireland currently lies in 89th position in a world classification table of women’s representation in parliament compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union in 2013. Ireland is also lowly ranked in terms of EU member states, ranking 20th out of 27 states (Cahill, 2013). Clearly Ireland has a major issue with the underrepresentation of women in politics and I hope to uncover why in this essay. In 1918 women achieved the right to vote in Ireland. This was due to certain restrictions but nonetheless Constance Markievicz was elected to the Dail in December of that year.

Years before she was elected she claimed the times were changing and with it came the washing away of the old “outposts that hold women enslaved and bearing them triumphantly into the life of the nation to which they belong” (Markievicz, 1909). Since 1918 women have claimed a meagre 219 out of 4,452 available seats in the Dail, a tiny 4. 9%. In the Seanad, they have filled 151 of the 1,620 available accumulating at 9. 3%. Today Ireland has one of the lowest numbers of women in parliament in Europe and ranks in the lower half of the table in terms of the world. Following the 2011 general election women took 18 of 60 seats in the Seanad.

They also took 25 seats out of a possible 166 in the Dail. This is a tiny percentage at 15. 1%. These are the highest figures ever in Ireland and yet still they are very low and in fact cause major underrepresentation of women in our society as a whole. Compared with the world average of 20. 8%, Ireland is well behind current trends internationally. The figures become worse when we compare them to that of our Nordic neighbours. Sweden ranks fourth at 44. 7% while Finland and Norway both have figures over 39% (ipu, 2013). President Michael D. Higgins recently brought the issue of women’s participation in Irish politics into the light.

He acknowledged the equality gap between men and women in Ireland was still significant and said ‘we must do much more to reform our political system to ensure that the boundless talent, intelligence and skills that women bring to the workplace generally can be more profoundly present in our parliament’. He also added that he hoped our political institutions could emerge from the simple concessions of participation in a male patriarchal and authoritarian setting to a more complete and fully human set of arrangements in decision-making (Irish Times, 2013). In the recent general election, out of a total of 566 candidates, only 86 were women.

However when we look at the average success rate between men and women, they are very similar averaging around the 29% mark (Buckley, 2011). This would indicate that there is no bias against female candidates amongst the Irish electorate. If both men and women have an equal chance in front of the voters, then why don’t more women move into the political field and put themselves forward for election? The reasons behind why there are so few women in politics can be arranged under five headings, which are, Childcare, Cash, Culture, Confidence and Candidate Selection.

These are the five main challenges that face women, hindering their political participation and stemming the full representation of women in Ireland. Women in Ireland have always traditionally been seen to play the role of child-bearers and homemakers in our society. The State and the Roman Catholic Church reinforced this view of women. Even in Article 41 of the 1937 Irish Constitution, the term ‘mother’ is used interchangeably with the word ‘woman’. This shows how the ‘childcare’ role of women was, and still is, engrained in our society. The National Women’s Council of Ireland released a report entitled ‘Who Cares? in 2009. It showed that over the course of a week, women would spend over a fifth of their day carrying out either care or household work.

This figure is three times as much as the male figure. Although the report was formed back in 2009 there is no indication to say that these figures have changed. There is a persistent cultural bias towards traditional gender roles in Ireland. A more recent report entitled ‘The 2010 Women and Men in Ireland Report’ (CSO, 2013), showed that the employment rate for both men and women without children was very similar. Males had a figure of 85. 7% while females had one of 86. %.

However this figure for women drops substantially once they give birth to a child. The figure for men, whose youngest child is aged three or under, stays high at 80. 2% whilst the female figure drops to 56%. Many women turn to part-time employment and in 2010 over three quarters of those who worked a 29-hour week in paid employment were women. Overall women earn just fewer than 70% of the average male income. This then increases to 90% if we take average hours worked into consideration. These factors combine and in essence strangle women’s opportunity of participating in politics.

The traditional route to election in Ireland requires the candidate to gain a strong local support base. Two of the key requirements to start a political career and achieve this are time and financial backing. This can be very hard to achieve for women. McGing outlines a ‘Survey of Women Oireachtas members’ taken in 2000 by Galliganet in her article on politicalreform. ie. The report found that 67% of those surveyed felt ‘family care responsibilities’ was their biggest hurdle in achieving political office, while 49% claimed a ‘lack of funding’ to be their biggest barrier (McGing, 2011).

Confidence to put themselves forward for election is also a major obstacle for women. Many women feel slightly disconnected from politics in Ireland due to the traditionally created view of politics as a male dominated world. Politics in Ireland has a very masculine image. Men created the political institutions in place today, at a time when women were still just struggling for equal rights and as such are much better placed when it comes to attaining political office. The final factor is candidate selection. Many also see this as the main contributing factor inhibiting women’s political participation.

Norris and Lovenduski released a book in 1995 that saw party recruitment as following a model of supply and demand. Demand is influenced by the general political opportunity there is in a given electoral constituency. This is the number of seats available within the area along with the candidate selectors attitude and their perception of what type of candidate the voters in that area might prefer. As I have mentioned earlier, research suggests there is no bias against female candidates amongst the Irish electorate. The selectorate may also be influenced from above when making their candidate selection.

Traditional methods of selection have included selecting individuals who resemble the party’s elite, of who the vast majority are male. The supply side of the system suggests that the ‘outcome reflects the supply of applicants wishing to pursue a political career’. The availability of resources to women i. e. time and funds coupled with motivational factors such as confidence and ambition stop them from entering politics. Potential applicants may also be discouraged from coming forward due to the perception of prejudice among party activists, complex application procedures or anticipated failure career’ (Norris and Lovenduski, 1995. Pg. 15).

If we apply this research to Ireland we can see clearly how supply and demand interact with each other in the candidate selection process. Local party organisations influence the selection process immensely in Ireland and due to their political culture they tend to reselect candidates that have built up a strong base of votes in their constituencies. This makes it hard for women to be selected, as they do not have a proven support base behind them. The only other major contributing factor would be a strong local reputation.

This can be achieved through such ways as holding office in local government or through building a reputation within the G. A. A. Women hold less than 20% of local Government seats. The G. A. A. is a male dominated association as well and its ability to benefit politically willing men can have an opposing affect on women’s aspirations. The G. A. A. in particular has given many male candidates in rural constituencies a platform to launch a political career off. It is from this we can see how the supply and demand of the candidate recruitment process interact with one another.

The aspects of selection are considerably male dominated while the supply of female candidates is limited because of this. There are many different simple measures that could be introduced to increase women’s political participation. Gender quotas however have been noted as one of the key contributing factors towards achieving this. They have been utilised worldwide and have given women the ability to access power structures and become involved within the political scene of their countries. Ireland has recently adopted a gender quota.

The ‘Electoral (Amendment) Political Funding Bill’ of 2011, specifies that at least 30% of a party’s election candidates must be female. If a party doesn’t abide to this their state funding will be halved. This quota will apply to general elections with a view to it rising to 40% after seven years. Gender quotas are considered a successful equal opportunity measure and because of this over a hundred countries worldwide have taken them on. Seventeen of the top twenty countries for women’s representation have quotas in place or have recently had them in place (Buckley, McGing, 2011).

Nonetheless I do not see the introduction of these quotas as the sole solution. Many different measures must be taken alongside these quotas with the aim of changing the cultural and political attitudes of Irish society. In her book ‘Feminizing Politics’, Lovenduski lays out three strategies to encourage and increase the numbers of women participating in politics. Equality rhetoric is the public acceptance that women have an equal chance of election as men. This should be set out in all party manifestos and also backed in speeches by the political elite.

When elites, such as the above-mentioned President Higgins, admit there is a need for more women to be involved at the decision making process, this should bring the issue of women’s political equality into focus among the public. Equality promotion deals with trying to bring more women into the political field. Measures could be taken such as awareness campaigns, financial assistance for female candidates as well as training and mentoring for aspiring candidates or the Government signing treaties on women’s equality.

These measures help reduce the obstacles women face when trying to become politically mobilised. The third and final strategy deals with equality guarantees. This strategy aims to increase the level of demand for female candidates at party level. Gender quotas are a typical example of this and they ensure that either a certain percentage of women are nominated to run for election or a certain percentage of women are actually elected. Gender quotas are typically seen as a fast solution to the issue of few women in politics (Lovenduski, 2005).

It could take years for social, cultural and political values to change in order to gain political equality for women and gender quotas make this change swiftly. The NWCI has calculated that it would take approximately 370 years before a 50:50: gender balance presented itself naturally in the Dail (McGing, 2011). They are typically controversial but together with other important measures gender quotas can put a country on the front foot towards political equality. Poland is an example of a country that introduced gender quotas.

In 2009 only one fifth of the Polish Lower House of parliament was made up by women, whilst just 15% made up it’s Upper House. The Polish Women’s Congress showed their dissatisfaction with the underrepresentation of women in Poland and proposed the introduction of a gender quota into Polish politics. Initially a 50:50 proposal was put forward but this was rejected and after months of deliberation they introduced the new Electoral code of 2011. This ensured a gender quota for both men and women of 35% on electoral lists.

This sanction turned out to be effective since the number of female candidates doubled to the Lower House of parliament when compared to the 2007 election figures. However the results in 2011 were not as good and currently females make up only one quarter of the Lower House. A lot of people have been quick to knock gender quotas because of these 2011 results but research has shown it may have been down to the lack of rank placement requirements in the Polish electoral system. This relates to the ranking of candidates on electoral lists.

Women have been placed lower down the lists and a lot of organisations are calling for a ranked system whereby positions on electoral lists would be reserved for female candidates. (Nizynska and Druciarek, 2012). Rwanda is currently ranked first in the world classification table of women’s representation in parliament with 56% in the Lower House and 38% in the Upper House. In 2008 Rwanda became the first country with a majority of women in the legislature. Today women also hold one third of all cabinet level posts.

The 2003 signing of the Rwandan Constitution reserved at least 30% of seats to women in all decision-making bodies. Of the 24 women who held the seats between 2003 and 2008, only a small number ran for the same seats again. Most chose to run on political party ballots competing directly with the men. This is why they achieved a majority of 56% in the 2008 election. The reserved seats served as an incubator for women who might have otherwise been excluded from the process, offering them the opportunity to gain experience and confidence.

Rwanda is the outstanding example of how gender quotas can work (Friedman, 2008). Democracy is an ever-changing and imperfect experiment. Times are changing and old attitudes of women’s place in society are slowly being brushed aside. In Ireland, there are many different reasons for the lack of women engaging in the political sphere such as Childcare, Cash, Culture, Confidence and Candidate Selection. Gender quotas are a solution but only when they are coupled with other measures. Together with the strategies of equality rhetoric and promotion, gender quotas will put Ireland on the fast route to political equality.

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