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Gender quotas will make little difference while the Dáil remains an old boys' club


Former President Mary Robinson

Former President Mary Robinson

Former President Mary Robinson

'Being a woman," the author Joseph Conrad once noted, "is a terribly difficult task since it consists principally in dealing with men."

Nowhere is that more true than in politics.

Consider the stats. The current Dáil has a record 27 women TDs, but that still means over five out of every six TDs are male.

The figures are a little better in other political chambers. One in three senators is a women. Six of our 11 MEPs are female and, of course, two of our last three Presidents were women.

There's progress too in other areas. The jobs of Minster for Justice, Attorney-General, Chief Justice, DPP, Garda Commissioner, Chief State Solicitor and the Head of the Policy Authority are all currently filled by women.

But that only serves to highlight the slow pace of change in the Dáil, so famously captured last week by the picture of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party welcoming the latest addition, Bobby Aylward, to their all-male club.

Fianna Fáil, nought from 33, is obviously the worst offender, but there's no room for complacency elsewhere.

Fine Gael with 11 women TDs is just at the Dáil average; Labour, which champions itself as the party of equality, has seven out of 33 women deputies, while Sinn Féin - despite all its MEPs being female - has just two.

The new selection quotas, which financially penalise those parties that don't ensure a third of their general election candidates are women, should help improve matters. In Britain, when Labour introduced all-women shortlists, it resulted in a return of 101 women MPs, a quarter of the party's total in the 1997 election.

The positive impact of that was dulled somewhat when they were quickly dubbed "Blair's babes" by the media, the obvious implication being that they owed their position to Tony Blair. Such casual sexism is not so immediately obvious in Irish politics, but clearly Dáil Éireann remains a cold place for women.

In 1992, just after Mary Robinson's election, there were 20 women TDs. In the two intervening decades, a time of extraordinary social change, the percentage of women deputies has shifted upwards by just four percentage points.

And the selections quotas, however necessary and desirable, won't alter the suspicion that women generally don't find the option of a career in Leinster House particularly appealing.

The working hours in Leinster House hardly help. The Dáil starts late in the morning and can continue well into the night.

Our electoral system, which prizes the grind of constituency work over legislating, means a gruelling seven-day schedule for most TDs. In an ideal world, that should discommode men as much as women, fathers as much as mothers. However, in Ireland, the burden of childcare still falls disproportionately on women. It's wrong but it's the reality.

Many bright, ambitious women will rationally choose other careers that allow them to more manageably achieve that family and work balance that politics currently doesn't remotely offer.

While childcare is a crucial issue, it's hardly the only factor in women's low representation in politics. The hope is that with greater equality, the inherent bias in our upbringings in the past - that propelled more confident, assertive males into political life at the expense of often more talented women - will diminish.

But old habits die hard. Perhaps also women instinctively see a lot of the posturing and what passes for political debate and discourse in the 'old boys club' as nonsense and hot air that repels them.

There's also the contentious claim that women don't vote for women candidates. The research, done mainly in the US, doesn't really back that up. It actually shows that women are slightly more likely to vote for women.

However, such support is certainly not automatic and there is no solid block of women voters that female candidates can bank on. That's probably as it should be. But the same doesn't necessarily hold for male voters. A 2007 Gallup poll in the US found 93pc of Americans would vote for a black president, but just 86pc for a female candidate.

That points to an inherent bias against women candidates among a minority of voters.

Susan Fiske, a psychology professor at Princeton University, recently told 'The New Yorker' magazine that women candidates "generally fall into two alternatives: they are either seen as nice but stupid, or smart but mean."

And as the writer of that piece noted, we want "nice and smart" in our senior politicians. That raises the question as to whether we as voters have a harder time seeing women as nice, if they exhibit the kind of behaviour we expect and demand of our political leaders.

Do we, for example, view Bill Clinton differently from Hillary? It may not be just Dáil Éireann that needs to change.

Shane Coleman is the presenter of the 'Sunday Show' on Newstalk.com

Irish Independent