Political gender representativeness now on the march

Only 13.8% of our TDs are women but they must comprise at least 30% of candidates at the next general  electionSenator Ivana Bacik 


Ireland was in 37th position in world tables of women’s representation in the lower house of national parliaments, ranked by the Inter-Parliamentary Union in 1990. In 2009, I authored a report on women’s participation in politics for the Oireachtas Justice Committee.  It found Ireland had fallen to 84th position, with only 23 women TDs out of 166 (13.8%). Women currently make up 15% of our TDs but Ireland has fallen to 90th position in the world rankings. This is because we have never taken the positive action which has increased the numbers of women entering parliament elsewhere.

The 2009 report found that women were being excluded from participation in political life by the “5 Cs”: Culture, Cash, Childcare, Confidence, and the Candidate Selection Procedures. International research shows that political-party candidate-selection tends to exclude women from nomination. One key recommendation in the report was that legislation should require political parties to select a minimum proportion of candidates of each gender. This was based on successful similar initiatives in Belgium and Spain.

This proposed change has now become law through the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act 2012. The ‘opportunity quota’ law ensures that voters will be given greater opportunity to elect a woman. It leaves the choice to the electorate, in contrast to the type of ‘result quota’ laws which require a minimum number of women to be elected.

The Act requires political parties to select at least 30% women and 30% men as candidates for the next general election. After seven years the requirement will be to select at least 40% men and 40% women candidates. Parties that do not meet these targets will have their state funding cut by half. This legislation should have a transformative effect on the political landscape at the next election.

Women Quota Spiegel

However, the legislation does not apply to local elections. No formal quota will be in place for next year’s council elections. While I would have liked to see formal quotas introduced for 2014, political parties will still need to recruit more women to run as candidates for local councils next year, so that they will have sufficient numbers of well-placed women to select for the general election likely in 2016.

Research by Claire McGing and Adrian Kavanagh at NUI Maynooth  shows that the numbers of women candidates in local elections increased steadily from 1985-2004. In 1985, women represented only 11% of all candidates, but this rose at each subsequent election, up to 18.1% by the 2004 election. Disappointingly, however,  the 2009 local election saw the first decline since 1985: women comprised only 17.1% of all candidates on the ballot paper.

In the 2009 election, the bigger parties put forward the lowest number of women candidates: only 16.9% of Fianna Fáil candidates were women, and only 18.1% of Fine Gael candidates. The parties which had introduced internal quotas for women candidates in the run up to the local elections (Labour, Sinn Féin, and the Green Party) did significantly better. 23.1% of Labour Party candidates were women; 22.1% of Sinn Féin’s candidates; and 22.1% of Green Party candidates.

The percentage of women elected at local-government level increased from 1985 until 2004 (according to research by Fiona Buckley at UCC). In 1985, women won 8% of seats at local level and by 2004 this had risen to 19%. However, the 2009 election again saw the first decrease, as women only won 16% of council seats. Political representation at local-government level has always been at least 81% male.

Women’s low participation rates can change where political parties take measures to increase the numbers of women standing as candidates. It appears from the data that the greater the number of women candidates, the greater the number of women who will be elected. With quota legislation in place for the next general election, and selection conventions for the local elections already underway, now is a good time for the political parties to start taking positive action to increase the numbers of women who will be on the ballot paper for each constituency in 2014. Democracy demands representativeness.