Ciairín de Buis: Gender quotas should be an absolute minimum, not a target

With more than three-quarters of our TDs being men, Ireland once again has one of the least balanced political systems in Europe, writes Ciairín de Buis

Neasa Hourigan of the Green Party, centre, celebrates with friends and family as she is elected in Dublin Central. More than 40% of Green Party candidates in this election were women. Picture: Niall Carson/PA
Neasa Hourigan of the Green Party, centre, celebrates with friends and family as she is elected in Dublin Central. More than 40% of Green Party candidates in this election were women. Picture: Niall Carson/PA

We make up more than half the population, so why are less than a quarter of our elected politicians women?

Cork East, Cork North West, Cork South Central, Cork North Central — not one woman elected to the Dáil.

Social Democrats councillor Holly Cairns of Cork South West was the only woman elected across any of the Cork constituencies.

No woman elected in Limerick — city or county. Dublin West is all men, as is Tipperary and Donegal.

My day job is that I’m the CEO of Women for Election. We train and support women to succeed in politics.

We are non-partisan, so we train and support women across all parties and none, of all political hues across the country.

We want to see more women elected, we want a balanced political system. All the research shows that more diversity leads to better decisions, and better decisions lead to better politics.

Women, in all our diversity, need to be part of our political system. With a political system where more than three-quarters of those representing us are men, we have one of the least balanced political systems in Europe.

As part of our training sessions in Women for Election, we often have contributions from elected representatives tell us about their experience — how they came to be a candidate, what they found the campaign like, and life since being elected.

These are well able, confident women — women who have served in council chambers, worn mayoral chains, sat in the Dáil chamber, and been around the Cabinet table.

Almost to a woman, they tell us they were asked to run. And usually they were asked more than once.

While this election saw, for the first time, at least one woman running in every constituency, it didn’t see a huge increase in the number of women running.

Less than a third of those who came looking for our votes were women. It may be stating the obvious, but if women weren’t on the ticket, women weren’t going to get elected.

While some of the smaller parties ran balanced tickets, the larger parties didn’t.

So while the Social Democrats saw women making up more than half of their candidates, and more than 40% of the Green Party ticket were women, the larger parties seemed to regard the gender quota requirement as a target rather than the absolute minimum required.

Gender quotas were introduced in Ireland because there were so few women in Irish political life.

It’s important to remember that gender quotas only get women onto the ballot paper — it’s then up to the electorate to elect our representatives. Political parties are now required to run at least a 30/70 balanced ticket, or they will lose half of their State funding.

The 2011 election was the last election before the quotas came into place, when only 15% of the candidates were women, and only 25 women were elected to Dáil Éireann.

And we can see that gender quotas work — the 2016 general election saw women making up around 30% of candidates, and 22% (or 35 TDs) of those elected.

Last weekend’s election was the second since the introduction of gender quotas. We saw a similar number of candidates, and it looks like a similar number of women will be elected.

While we’re still waiting for the final figures, it’s clear that we are not going to see any seismic shift in the numbers of women in Dáil Éireann.

General Election 2020 was never going to be the election where we saw a balanced Dáil — because not enough women were on the ballot papers.

Fine Gael just about met the gender quota requirements, with women making up 30% of their candidates.

Fianna Fáil weren’t much better than their great rivals, with 31% of their candidates being women.

Sinn Féin were marginally better, with women making up 33% of those running on their ticket.

So, given that the three larger parties in the State did not field a balanced ticket, we were never going to see a balanced Dáil.

I go back to those women who contribute to our training sessions. Women who were elected and serving their communities, women who were asked to run.

Why is it that the smaller, newer parties can run a balanced ticket? Why aren’t the larger parties asking more women to run? There isn’t a townland across Ireland where women aren’t active and involved in their local community — so why aren’t the parties asking them to run?

We’ve seen over the weekend that politics and political life can be harsh and brutal — and it is a wonderful opportunity and privilege to work on behalf of your communities.

The campaign for the next election has already started.

Next time around, the political parties need to ask more women to run. If you know a woman who would make a good political representative, ask her to run.

And if you are that woman, say yes.

Ciairín de Buis is chief executive of Women for Election, a not-for-profit organisation which encourages and supports women in Ireland to run for political office.

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