Are we forcing women into politics?

Are gender quota an incentive for women to join politics or nothing more than an insult? Do they encourage women to pursue this career path or simply force them into it?

This year’s upcoming local elections will be the last not have gender quotas in place. But what was intended to be an action to empower women by promoting gender equality now appears to have been turned completely on its head, igniting fierce feminist debate.

In November last year, the Irish Independent reported that Ireland has one of the lowest numbers of female politicians in the developed world with only 15 per cent of TDs and senators female, half the average in 34 other countries. The article also revealed how the number of female politicians in Ireland has barely risen since the 2002 general election.

In December, the Irish Head of the EU Commission Representation in Ireland, Barbra Nolan noted that while over a third of Irish women have a third-level degree, the percentage of female representatives in the Oireachtas is comparable to that in Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Such startling figures may explain the reasoning behind seeking an incentive to encourage women to pursue a career in politics, especially when gender quotas have proven successful in other countries.

Sweden has voluntary party quotas and figures for female political representation there are as high as 45 per cent. Other countries with quotas like Belgium and Spain have numbers in the high thirties.

Steps have been taken to see the same figures here, with the Minister for the Environment and Local Government Phil Hogan introducing a law stating that at least 30 per cent of party candidates for city and county elections must be women, or else parties will lose half of their state funding.

Despite the measure’s success in other countries, its implementation has faced somewhat of a backlash in Ireland. Certain independent female TDs have been vocal about opposing gender quotas.

Maureen O’Sullivan, TD for Dublin Central, believes that despite the overwhelming male presence in the Dáil, female representatives are more than able to fight their corner. “It’s very obvious physically looking at it there are far more men than women. I think the women are well able to hold their own however.”

Independent socialist TD Clare Daly agrees that undertaking such measures is “not the solution”.

She said: “There needs to be a revolution in local government making it more relevant and devolving powers, so that women, people from a manual working background, and non-Irish born citizens will feel that their participation is relevant. Gender quotas are a sop. Positive role models are more important.”

While it may be unsurprising for independent representatives with no ties to any party to speak out about such matters, even members of Fine Gael have been critical of the quotas.

Recently, Tralee Town Councillor for Fine Gael, Mairead Fernane said gender quotas “weaken” the standing of female politicians. Taking into consideration the low numbers of women that tend to run in comparison to men, if a certain number of women must be elected it is obviously going to be easier to get elected purely on the basis of being a woman.

While gender quotas have been proven to increase female representation, they haven’t necessarily led to their empowerment. A 2013 report by the Directorate General for Internal Policies in the European Parliament concluded that the number of women involved in crucial decision-making is still low.

Things seemed to come to a head recently when the Mayor of Tralee, Pat Hussey resigned from Fine Gael after claiming women were being “pushed in” by the party and that he was being discriminated against after he was not chosen as a candidate for this year’s local elections.

He slammed the introduction of the quota saying: “You could have a fantastic candidate overlooked for someone who doesn’t know anything at all about politics.”

Though he describes himself as a supporter of increasing female representation in politics, Hussey said “they have families and if they want to be politicians they’ll have to pay exorbitant money into creches — it’s all wrong”.

Whether or not you agree with Hussey’s controversial statement, something can be said for his first point. Is it completely fair to select one candidate over another because of their gender rather than their suitability for the role? Or is it insulting to women and discriminating against men?

Whether or not that is the case, as Councillor Fernane bluntly put it, “no female councillor I know wants to get handed it on a plate”.

Sharon McGowan

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