Come on, ladies – it's party time
Carol Hunt joined the Women for Election group for a debate about the dearth of women in politics
Published 08/12/2013 | 02:30
'Parochial and macho" is how Lucinda Creighton described the current state of Irish politics last week in an interview with Sean O'Rourke. She said that when she was first elected, she "looked around the Dail and saw that it was not fit for purpose".
Most of us don't need to become TDs to cop that. All we have to do is watch a few episodes of Oireachtas Report to understand that Leinster House is indeed a macho, parochial, boys' club. And when one considers that the entire country is effectively being controlled by a four-man cabal – none of whom has any experience of life beyond the public sector – perhaps "dictatorial and elitist" should be added to that description.
Would it be different if a woman was in charge? Not necessarily. Margaret Thatcher is usually the example thrown at feminists when we argue that things would be better if a female hand was at the helm. And certainly Thatcher played the boys' game better than the boys themselves – at least until they all got together and ganged up on her. But even had she been Gloria Steinem mixed with Germaine Greer – which she most certainly wasn't – Thatcher would have found it difficult to change the macho status quo of Westminster politics all by herself. Numbers are what is needed.
Similarly in Ireland, even though we've had two female presidents and two tanaiste – strangely, all called Mary – none of them (apart perhaps from Mary Robinson during the divorce referendum) has managed to change the way politics is done in this country: which is, effectively, by men for men.
Yet we're all agreed that more women in politics would be "a very good thing" for everybody concerned. Or at least those of us who have read of the literature on such issues, which I suspect may be fewer than I'd like. Women constitute more than half the population of this country yet make up only 16 per cent of TDs, and Ireland ranks 24th of the 28 EU states in terms of female political representation. Outside of politics, women still earn less than men, are vastly over-represented as homemakers and criminally under-represented in business and on boards of management.
And it's not because women are uneducated. Far from it. In Ireland women (aged between 30 and 34) outstrip men in having a third-level education by 58 per cent to 44 per cent. Last week we saw that one of the main barriers for women getting ahead in the workplace is the obscene cost of childcare. In Ireland, women seemingly produce children all on their own – by virginal miracle perhaps, which would explain our reverence for the name "Mary" – and consequently are expected to facilitate the care and cost of these children by themselves if they want something as unfeminine as a "career".
The grand sum of €16,500 is what many women in this country can expect to bring home annually (net). It is also, according to the report launched by Frances Fitzgerald last week, the average cost of childcare for a family with just two children. Our childcare costs are more than double the OECD average.
As Kerry Mayor Pat Hussey said when he protested against voting quotas for women: "They [women] have families and if they want to be politicians they'll have to pay exorbitant money into creches – it's all wrong!" Incidentally, Mayor Hussey was making the point that quotas for women were "all wrong", not the fact that he deems them solely responsible for the care of children.
The fact that we have no coherent State support for childcare or tax breaks for working parents didn't just happen by accident; it is a choice made by the people in charge, the majority of whom are men.
Quite frankly, this stinks. It's sad and embarrassing – not just for women, but for anyone with the slightest interest in being part of a just and healthy society which cares for its most vulnerable, the majority of whom are women and children. Yes, the introduction of a quota system is to be welcomed but there are still informal, powerful cultural forces preventing women from entering the political arena.
And yet there is hope. Last Tuesday the Women for Election group held a debate ably chaired by Norah Casey. At it, Lucinda, Mary-Lou, Averil, Regina, Ivana and Mary (White, Green Party – there are so few women in Leinster House we know the others purely by their Christian names) cogently and calmly articulated their experience of life inside the "macho" world of politics; their hopes and ambitions for the future, for Irish women and all our citizens.
Though these politicians did not see eye to eye on all subjects, there was none of the one-upmanship, barracking and saying-stuff-just-for-the-sake-of-talking timewasting that we see so regularly from our male politicians. This is because "women are results-orientated", as Lucinda noted. Probably because they don't have time to be anything else.
Creighton believes that 2014 must herald a "democratic revolution" with far more women entering politics and genuine efforts at reform. On the childcare issue, one which Lucinda will face shortly, Ivana, a mother of two, advised her that the Dail creche was excellent but added that what we really need is compulsory paid paternity leave to include men in childrearing. Regina insisted that women need to get into politics at grass roots level in order to make it more family- friendly. All spoke about the upcoming local elections and the issue that female nominations so far are only at 26 per cent. Get out there and support those women!
While talking to the OH later, he reminded me of what Noel Browne said years ago: "If you want to change the system you must join it and change it from within yourself."
What? Leave the comfortable sidelines of carping about politicians in order to enter the affray myself?
Why not, he asked.
Because ... And here I count all the reasons why women don't enter politics: cash, childcare, confidence, candidate selection and culture. Perhaps all of these could be overcome but the essential ingredient that women with children lack, I tell him, is what the vast majority of very successful male politicians have. And that is a strong, capable, uncomplaining person in the background, coping with all the cooking, cleaning, childcare and generally picking up all the slack. What women need is ... a wife.