Quotas a step in closing the gender gap.

This article by Margaret O Keeffe and Colette Finn was printed in the Evening Echo in Cork on Monday February 2nd 2015.

Political parties are gearing up for the General Election and for the first time they will have to implement gender quota legislation – 30% of party candidates must be female or they will lose half of their state funding. Currently, only one in six of our Dail politicians are female. The old rules basically entrenched a system that favoured those who were well resourced and without care commitments. It further socialised the excluded groups to see their absence as somehow their own fault.
The Oireachtas recognized gender imbalance as being problematic. They had two choices, accept the status quo that the overwhelming majority of Ireland’s elected representatives would be male or implement candidate selection gender quotes to force the political system to include the other fifty percent of the population – namely women. A majority of the mostly male politicians chose the latter.
The arguments that people should be elected on merit, what difference would it make, would that difference be better or worse, a female politician doesn’t necessarily represent ‘women’s’ views no more than a male politician represents ‘men’s’ views – these are all red herrings. In a properly functioning democracy those elected should be reflective of the population that it seeks to represent. Women are half the population and therefore should be half the representation.
The 5050 group was formed in September 2010 in the aftermath of a conference organised by fellow 5050 collaborators Dr Sandra McEvoy and Ms Fiona Buckley in UCC. At that conference Senator Ivana Bacik presented the evidence of how other countries had made significant progress in achieving parliamentary gender balance through the use of quotas. She cited Belgium and Spain.as examples. A group of us decided we were going to take action and lobby for the implementation of candidate selection gender quotas.
Fortuitously for the 5050 group a change of government occurred in March 2011. In July 2012 the Fine Gael/Labour coalition enacted The Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act 2012. This legislation will penalise all parties in receipt of public funding if they don’t field at least thirty percent of candidates of each sex in the next general election. Within seven years the quota rises to forty percent. With this form of quota all political ideologies are being encouraged/forced to pay attention to the gender balance of the candidates that they select. However this legislation does not apply to local elections.
The parties sought to implement a voluntary 30% gender quota in the local elections of 2014. However, the difficulties of implementing voluntary quotas became apparent – Fianna Fail fielded 17.1% female candidates, Fine Gael fielded 22.6%, Labour’s 28.9%, Sinn Fein 31.6% and People Before Profit did best with almost 40%. Dr Adrian Kavanagh of Maynooth University points out that Fine Gael will have the greatest difficulty in meeting the quota because they have the highest number of incumbent males. Fianna Fail will also struggle but they have fewer incumbent males. However because both parties didn’t implement the voluntary quota in the local elections they do not have the pipeline of experienced women in Local Government or the Senate from which to select suitable candidates.
Clearly, the introduction of the gender quota legislation in 2012 was very welcome. However women (and men) from less well-resourced communities may face similar obstacles in making the transition from small ‘p’ to big ‘P’ politics. The barriers to formal political involvement for women from less resourced backgrounds are complex. It also needs to be clearly said that men from these kinds of backgrounds are also substantially underrepresented in the formal political domain.
Certainly, many women (and men) both young and old make a huge contribution to community wellbeing through their voluntary engagement in schools, youth clubs, sports clubs, churches and so forth. They see and challenge inequality every day. They work hard to improve their own lives as well as those of their friends and neighbours. In this sense, they are politically active, but in the informal (small ‘p’), as opposed to the formal, (big ‘P’) political sphere.
At some stage in our lives, all of us will care or be cared for. Fundamentally, the provision of care is core to our physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing, yet it is often provided on an unpaid basis. In addition, across Irish society, as elsewhere, it is still generally assumed by many people that ‘care’ is a ‘gendered’ activity, i.e. one done predominately by females. In other words, caring is women’s work.
In her article ‘Care-less Politics’ (2014), Mariz Tadros notes that the way politics is ‘done and run’ needs to factor in the ‘costs’ in every sense of unpaid care. Processes of deliberation and decision-making whether they are at the local government or at the national parliamentary level need to be highly sensitised to unpaid care responsibilities and how they impact on everyone’s capacity but particularly women’s capacity to participate in the formal political domain.
Clearly, as with gender quotas, efforts to address unpaid care are not a panacea for narrowing the gender gap in formal political representation. Addressing the issue of unpaid care, however, would help to ensure that more women stay in politics. It would also promote the idea that formal politics can be a viable and normalised career choice for anyone who also has care commitments, regardless of their socio-economic background. Furthermore, in the interests of a more balanced, happier society, ‘care’ should be a shared activity, i.e. one done equally by both men and women.
There is a need to adopt ‘an upside down’ approach to women’s political empowerment. However the academic and policy focus on getting the electoral system right so as to narrow the gender gap in the formal political sphere needs to be complemented with a ‘bottom up’ approach that critically interrogates pathways for less well-resourced women and men in political engagement.
Dr Colette Finn is Chair 5050 Group (Cork) and is a Carer/Economist with an interest in Nonprofit and Public sector businesses.
Dr Margaret O’Keeffe is a member of the 5050 Group (Cork) and is a Carer/Lecturer in Community Development in the Department of Applied Social Studies (CIT).

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