A recently published Oireachtas report on women’s participation in Irish politics has called for the introduction of mandatory electoral gender quotas. This will undoubtedly be an unpopular measure for a number of parties involved should the recommendation be carried out. Why are legally-binding gender quotas being considered in the first place?
Women are considerably underrepresented throughout all levels of Irish politics, despite accounting for half of the population (CSO, 2006). Only 13.8% of our current lower house (Dáil) is female, placing us at a global position of 84th (we were 37th in 1990!) and ranks us equally with Djibouti in East Africa (see http://www.ipu.org). This figure falls well below the world average and the internationally recommended ‘critical mass’ figure of 30%. Between 1977 and 2007, there had only been a 9.1% increase in the number of female TDs. Despite seeing a relatively significant increase of 7.1% between 1977 and 1992 (which brought female representation to 12.2%), progress since then has been considerably static. To put it in another way, the Dáil has always been at least 86% male. There is a slight improvement at local government level, with women comprising of 16.5% of our county/city councillors, but it is still strikingly low.
A number of factors have been identified as obstacles to women’s political participation: conservative and traditional gender stereotypes, voter bias, PR-STV, and district magnitude (Ireland has an average of 4.1, very small in internationally comparative terms). These factors all come together in the candidate selection process. This has been termed the ‘secret garden’ of politics, and in Ireland this garden is highly male-dominated. Only 17.4% of candidates in the 2007 general election were women. Fianna Fáil did not field women in 28 constituencies, and the figure for Fine Gael was 30. When more closely looked at, the trends that emerged are of particular interest to a political geographer. Interesting regional variations occurred in the levels of female candidacies. Women constituted of 20.9% of candidates in the Dublin constituencies, 20.8% in Leinster and 15.9% in Connacht-Ulster, yet just 13.3% in Munster. Such regional variations are evident in all Irish elections. An urban/rural divide is even more evident for the local elections that were held last June, with women making up 25.7% of urban candidates and just 16.9% of rural candidates.
All the political parties have introduced some form of ‘token’ representation, such as voluntary quotas, training/mentoring and future targets. The above figures, however, show that these casual measures have not worked effectively, with the majority of parties failing to meet their targets in the past. This is why an Oireachtas committee has recommended that gender quotas be introduced as a matter of law. Indeed, the Irish government has been criticised in the past by both the UN and the EU for failing to do more. Arguments can be made for and against gender quotas. Those on the latter side argue that they are discriminatory against men, result in a less competent government and that women selected/elected through such means are not as respected. Those in favour would point to the very successful cases of Belgium and Spain where the proportions of women in parliament have increased dramatically since the introduction of legally-binding quotas. For advocates, quotas are there to bring women up to a level playing field.
Will Ireland follow suit? It is hard to tell, but unless we can alleviate the root structural and cultural factors hindering politically-aspirant women in the first place, we may have no other alternative.