Niamh Gallagher: We must seize chance to change the gender balance in parliament
On February 26 the 83,384 people of Limerick County will have a different experience to their fellow citizens nationwide. This time around - unless we have an inspired late entrant to the race - theirs will be the only ballot paper in the country without a female candidate on it. In previous elections this might not have made Limerick such an outlier, but this time it certainly does because if there's one thing that's different about this election it's the number of female candidates in the field.
This is all the more remarkable given where we've come from. In 2011 just 86 women contested the election. Of more than 500 candidates, they made up 15pc. This time there are 156 women selected and counting, that's just over 30pc and almost double the number that ran in 2011. This change is even more striking given the trend since 1997 of an ever-falling proportion of women contesting. In 1997 female candidates made up 20pc of those on the ballot, in 2002 it fell to 19pc, then to 17pc in 2007 and down to the doldrums of 2011 at 15pc.
This time, driven by the gender quota legislation introduced in 2012 and the energy and motivation around the issue of women's political participation, the figure has doubled, and doubled in style. We have leaders emerging, the three 'beacon' constituencies of Waterford, Dún Laoghaire and Dublin Rathdown, which boast more than 50pc female candidates apiece, closely tailed by another 25 constituencies with 30pc female candidates or higher. This is a sea-change from 2011, when 30 of the 43 constituencies had two or fewer women on the ballot, and 19 constituencies elected no women at all.
This performance puts paid to the traditional party mantra that "we just can't find the women". This time they went looking and - surprise! - they found them in numbers. The larger parties didn't have to look too far; the majority of their female candidates came from within their established ranks: 85pc of them are either currently elected as TDs or councillors, or have run for election before. Add to that the Independents and smaller parties, many formed for the first time, and that number falls to 75pc, still a significant proportion. These figures demonstrate that the women on our ballot papers are for the most part experienced political operators, vote-getters and winners, ready and prepared for the job ahead.
But that's all very well - the women are on the ballot paper - but why should we care? And, more importantly, why should we vote for them? What difference can they make? Well, plenty. We know from international research that parliaments with a balance of women and men make decisions differently, and make different decisions. Women tend to take an open and collaborative approach to making policy, engaging many voices and sharing information as plans progress. They view decisions with a broad lens, viewing both the economic elements of, say, a city transport policy, and the social impacts: how will families get around, what is the impact on people with disabilities, with buggies, people making multiple stops? This is a simple example, but it demonstrates the importance of having a variety of perspectives and experiences around the tables where decisions are made. And of course, there's the simple point about representation. When we look at our parliament we want it to reflect us, the people. Right now, it's far from that. Improving the gender balance would be a first and necessary step, though there are more to go.
In less than three weeks now we have a chance to make a change and we should grab it. The groundwork over the past five years has ensured that we have a healthy proportion of female candidates on the ballot paper. Now it's about making sure that translates into a strong band of women walking through the gates of Leinster House as newly elected TDs in March. Between now and February 26, if you believe this matters, get active. Find a woman who aligns with your views and support her with your time, your skills and your networks; join a canvass team, drop leaflets, advocate on her behalf, promote her with friends, family and on social media, and, most importantly, get out there on election day and give her your number one vote.
We have talked about this problem for long enough. We have a Government that took strong measures to address it through the gender quota legislation, and women who have been ready and willing to stand up and put themselves forward for election. Now it's over to us, the voters. Let's see what change would look like. Get out there and elect a woman with a number one. Unless you're one of the 80,000-plus in Limerick County, you should have a fine number to choose from.