Saturday 21 September 2019

Women have talent - so why is politics in 2016 still largely a boys-only club?

'Fast-forward to Government formation and Enda Kenny, despite his pre-election promise of a 50/50 Cabinet, named just four women among his 15 senior ministers and, as for filling the pipeline, he opted not to do that either, by appointing just six women out of 23 committee chairs.'
'Fast-forward to Government formation and Enda Kenny, despite his pre-election promise of a 50/50 Cabinet, named just four women among his 15 senior ministers and, as for filling the pipeline, he opted not to do that either, by appointing just six women out of 23 committee chairs.'

Niamh Gallagher

It was to be a year like no other for women in politics - the year that a woman took the White House, the first female US president, and the world was ours.

But 2016 was far from that. The election of Donald Trump, with his view of women, and the reality that - despite that view - millions of Americans gave him their vote, shows us that we are far, far from shattering that highest, hardest glass ceiling.

But before the US election got going full throttle or the Brexit debate kicked off we had our own election, and here, on our little island, we made progress.

The February General Election, the first with gender-quota legislation in place, saw 163 women on the ballot paper - 30pc - almost double the 86 that stood in 2011.

The result saw 35 women - 22pc - take their seats in Dáil Éireann, bringing the Irish Parliament in line with the international average for female political participation and proving that when women are on the ticket they get elected.

The Seanad is even better. With 19 women among the 60 senators, it is at 32pc, above that critical mass of 30pc proven internationally to make a real difference in terms of policy output.

These are steps in the right direction, just steps, but welcome nonetheless.

Unfortunately, it stopped there. As work began in earnest to form a government, both major parties - Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael - felt it appropriate to form negotiating teams that were almost entirely male.

The Independent Alliance, a key player in discussions, forgot to invite the two women in its number - Katherine Zappone and Maureen O'Sullivan - to a critical meeting.

Fast-forward to Government formation and Enda Kenny, despite his pre-election promise of a 50/50 Cabinet, named just four women among his 15 senior ministers and, as for filling the pipeline, he opted not to do that either, by appointing just six women out of 23 committee chairs.

The European Affairs Committee - a critical forum in addressing Brexit and its implications for Ireland - doesn't have a single woman.

The message? Even with the gender quotas in place, politics remains a boys-only club - when important decisions are being made, women are not at the table.

Looking across the water - toward Britain that is - women in politics was a feature of the political year.

The election of Theresa May as leader of the British Conservatives saw that country appoint its second female prime minister.

A bizarre contest that saw a dramatic opting out by Boris Johnson and the unexpected candidacy of Michael Gove ended up with two women - Ms May and former energy secretary Andrea Leadsom - as the last ones standing.

Ms Leadsom's suggestion that as a mother, she was more qualified for the role of PM than Ms May, who is childless, brought out the worst of female stereotypes, triggered a media frenzy and ultimately led to Ms Leadsom's withdrawal from the race and the appointment of Ms May uncontested.

Britain, too, saw political tragedy, with the shocking murder of MP Jo Cox in her Yorkshire constituency. Briefly, the focus shifted to the good that politicians can do, as Ms Cox's commitment to public service, her tireless work ethic, and her determination to do her very best for her constituents were widely reported.

Still in the United Kingdom - for now that is - in Scotland women's political participation continues to barrel ahead under the able stewardship of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

Following the 2016 election she appointed her second 50/50 gender balanced cabinet, this time, we hope, to fewer public queries as to the ability of women ministers.

She remarked, speaking in Dublin this winter, on the curious fact that the qualification and competence of her ministers were only ever queried in relation to the women, never the men.

Her view that "you can't be what you can't see" underpins her work as leader, as she continues to build and champion the conditions for women to enter politics: family-friendly working hours at parliament, maternity leave for politicians, and - for the first time - all-women shortlists for her party, the SNP, to name just a few.

Her astute political judgment, demonstrated this year by her rapid positioning of Scotland's status as central to the Brexit negotiations, marks her out as one of the stand-out political stars of 2016.

But these events on our island and that of our nearest neighbour pale in comparison to what happened in the US this November.

There, a strong, thoughtful, capable, competent, experienced female politician lost out to a businessman and reality TV star with no experience of politics.

His references to certain women as "fat pigs" and "disgusting slobs" did not even put women off voting for him: 42pc of them put an X by his name on the ballot paper.

That event ended this extraordinary political year.

Now, the US is set to move in an entirely new direction to that forged by Barack Obama over the past eight years; the UK is forging its own path on the international stage; the EU faces unprecedented challenges relating to Brexit and beyond, as does our own island.

There are many things that will contribute to how we emerge from this particular political moment, one is how we use the talents we have.

Evidence shows that more balanced decision-making is better decision-making, that a mix of women and men around the table leads to more robust debate and improved policy outcomes.

We now have more women elected nationally than ever before. If Ireland wants to achieve its best in 2017, we would be well advised to use them.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss