Of the 68 candidates running for election in Cork, just 16 are women. But as Dr Theresa Reidy, a lecturer in the Department of Government at UCC explains, the numbers are a welcome improvement
IN 2011, just 86 women contested the Dáil election. They made up 15.2% of all the candidates in the race, and there were a total of 27 female TDs in the last Dáil.
The low levels of female participation in politics had been the subject of commentary for decades but little action was taken.
The combination of the economic crisis and the ensuing political turmoil from 2008 put women in politics back on the agenda. The Taoiseach Enda Kenny promised a democratic revolution upon election and while many of us are now disillusioned with the delivery of the political reform agenda, one of the few areas where the government did act was on their promise to bring more women into politics. Credit is due to them on this.
Legislative Change The Electoral (Political Funding) Act was passed in 2012 and it provided that state funding of political parties required that they must have at least 30% of their candidates from either gender on the party ticket for general elections.
Parties failing to meet this requirement lose 50% of the state funding that they get under the terms of the 1997 Electoral Act. In practice, this has meant candidate quotas for women.
The 2016 election is the first that will take place under the rules and we are beginning to see the implications of the new law.
There are 551 candidates contesting the election on Friday and 163 of these, or 29.58%, are women. This means that the percentage of women contesting the election is just short of double what it was in 2011. The political parties took the change seriously and have met the 30% candidate quota.
Interestingly, the emphasis on getting more women into politics has had broader effects. The number of women candidates contesting the election as independents has also increased although the financial implications of the 2012 legislation will have no impact on them. The number of women candidates at the local elections in 2014 was also up on previous years.
It reminds us of the point gender equality campaigners have been making for decades: politics is not a woman friendly environment and Irish political culture has not encouraged them to get involved. It has always been a complex scenario because women have long been prominent in local community organisations yet remained a small presence in politics.
The candidate quota has forced political parties to sit up and engage with the issue. It won’t come as a surprise that they were able to find plenty of women interested in politics, we do make up half of the population after all!
Concerns have been aired that women have been selected to run in constituencies where the party is weak and/or unlikely to take a seat. We will have to wait until after the election to fully assess this but it is worth mentioning that elections costs money and each additional candidate increases costs for parties. As a result, they are unlikely to run candidates unless they think they add to their chances of taking seats.
The second thing is that the way the electoral system works punishes parties that run too many candidates. They can end up splitting their vote and potentially losing seats where they might have secured one. Candidate selection strategies are carefully developed and honed to take account of both of these factors.
Lastly, fragmentation in the opinion polls means that the entire electoral landscape is very uncertain. Based on current polls, all bets are off.
The Picture in Cork
The national picture is very positive and Cork is getting there as well. There are 68 candidates running in the five Cork constituencies and 16 of these are women. This is big step forward on 2011 when just seven of the 67 candidates who contested the election were women.
The campaign group Women For Election have been collecting data on the candidates running across the country and they report an average of four women running in each constituency across the country and Limerick (formerly Limerick West constituency) picks up the ignominious honour of being the only constituency in the country with no woman on the ballot.
Choice for Voters
Increasing the number of women on the ballot is good for voters. It means that they will have more choice on election-day. The candidate rules apply only to parties, voters will choose the candidates and parties in order of their preference as they have always done.
We know from research by political scientists at UCC and TCD that when women appear on the ballot, they get elected. Voters want choice and want to see women running for all the parties. People don’t vote for someone because of their gender, they vote for them because they think the person will work hard for their constituency and be a good legislator in the Dáil. The big increase in the number of women on the ballot will translate into more women in the Dáil and that will be a good thing.
More Women in the Dáil and in the Cabinet There is international research which shows that when women are elected, they can have a very positive impact. They can put women’s issues onto the legislative agenda. The high cost of childcare is an issue for men and women. But it is an issue that has primarily increased in prominence over time because women have entered the labour force in greater numbers.
Increasing the number of women in parliament should help bring more attention to these types of concerns. But it is very important to note that it is not just in areas of social policy that women TDs can have an impact.
Credit Suisse is one of the world’s largest financial institutions and in 2012 it produced a report which clearly demonstrated that companies with more women on their management boards outperformed those that were male dominated.
Having a more diverse boardroom delivers better results and higher profits. It is about time that our political system looked at this kind of evidence and considered whether having more women in the top jobs might deliver better and more stable outcomes for Ireland.
The last thing to mention is that Enda Kenny has committed to having a gender balanced cabinet if he is re-elected. I’m not certain that he will be, based on the current poll numbers, but if he is, we must keep him to his promise.
The new Canadian Prime Minister elected late last year had the best answer when he was questioned on why half his cabinet were women. He replied, ‘Its 2015’.
We have to hope that our centenary year delivers some real progress on gender equality in Ireland. After all, it’s 2016.