ALISON O'CONNOR: Kenny is way behind the curve on women’s role in politics

THE birds are angry. That is good news. Their anger can be put to good use.

When Taoiseach Enda Kenny decided to diss the political sisters in his recent junior reshuffle he raised the ire of female Fine Gael TDs, those of other political hues and indeed the wider female population. The (male) Dáil wags quickly came up with the tag “Angry Birds” to describe the disaffected rump, after the popular computer game.

Yes it was offensive, but also indeed funny. The very fact the female TDs can be lumped in as a group in this manner gets to the nub of what a minority women are in the Dáil, and in power.

Reshuffles are not an easy thing for a Taoiseach to handle, and slip-ups are commonplace, but this was somewhat incredible — to appoint nine ministers and not one of them a female.

Not that long ago this would have been fairly unremarkable. It was simply the way things were, and it was easy to dismiss the odd grumble about the dominance of men in politics. But the world has moved on, feminism has re-ignited, even if the man in charge of this country does not appear to have caught up with those changing times.

Enda Kenny’s all-male line-up made him look seriously out of touch. Because of her gender there may have been the expectation that Tánaiste Joan Burton was simply doing what was obliged of her, when she elevated Jan O’Sullivan to the Cabinet as Education Minister, and has Kathleen Lynch and Ann Phelan in the junior ministerial ranks.

There is no shortage of examples of women in positions of power who failed to support other women and preferred to be viewed as the Queen Bee. So the Tánaiste’s appointments are indeed to be admired.

She knows how it is for women in Irish politics, how easy it is for an entire gender to be brushed aside, and to be labelled as difficult or irrational by the boys. She knows what it is like to be in an overwhelming minority as a female surrounded by men who believe they have a God-given right to govern.

Up to this, the lack of women in power has meant that women are not perceived as politically powerful and it is therefore easier to ridicule and belittle them as a minority group. The former Minister for Environment Phil Hogan is to be congratulated for the introduction of candidate gender quotas, a single concrete initiative which will produce results.

But the Taoiseach’s junior reshuffle sent an entirely contrary signal. Afterwards he defended his position by saying a ministerial title is not a path to personal or political success. Piffle. Politics is about power and climbing the ladder of success. That’s why men have been so successful at it. Find me a single male politician who would agree with the Taoiseach’s statement. It is an added insult to women to attempt to fob them off by pretending status is irrelevant.

The Taoiseach was correct to point out that around the Cabinet table at the moment there is the highest number of women representatives in the history of the State. It is an improvement but a somewhat pitiful boast when he actually looks around that table at the Fine Gael ministers, of which two are female — Frances Fitzgerald and Heather Humphreys.

The gender outcome of our reshuffle here can be contrasted to that of Prime Minister David Cameron in the UK.

In terms of figures the number of females at his much larger Cabinet table was restored to five, the same as it was in 2011, but he did appoint five women to junior ministerial roles. The issue of women in power is a far more live one over there than here. Following the UK general election in 2010, where there was a notable absence of high-profile females, a number of groups came together calling themselves “The Counting Women In” coalition. It produced a report Sex and Power 2013: Who Runs Britain? It pointed out that internationally, the UK Parliament lies 60th (out of 190) in the global league table in terms of women legislators, and lags behind every western European neighbour except Ireland, Italy and Monaco.

It stated there is a growing body of evidence, largely drawn from business, that women make a positive difference to actual decision-making itself. For example, in a report in 2011 the accounting firm Deloitte found that: “In Europe, of 89 publicly traded companies with a market capitalisation of over £150m, those with more women in senior management and on the board had, on average, more than 10% higher return on equity than those companies with the least percentage of women in leadership”, and came to the conclusion that, “in reality, the question is not women or men, it’s how to ensure women and men are working together in decision-making roles”. If this is true for major companies, it is also true for government.

Moreover, there is some evidence to suggest that the presence of women changes what is debated in the public realm as well as what government actually does. Research carried out by the Hansard Society in the UK found that women can and do bring issues to the table which may not otherwise be debated, or which might wrongly be considered to be of less significance. It concluded that “excluding women thus has the effect of making the legislature less relevant to the whole population, both male and female, than it has the potential to be.”

There is a raft of these type of reports published internationally but you’d wonder has the Taoiseach bothered to read even one, let alone have one commissioned, or did he and his all-male troupe of advisers simply look into their own hearts.

ALTHOUGH David Cameron comes from a younger generation than our Taoiseach, his attitude to women in politics doesn’t seem to be that much different. But Cameron recognises the electoral smartness of promoting more women. He has, crucially, come under pressure from the results of party polling and focus groups showing that women are less than impressed with the Conservatives; that the party is vulnerable to the Labour claim that the government’s economic strategy during the recession hit women hardest, as they bore the brunt of the reforms to welfare and benefits.

This sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It is not at all different to what happened here during the recession. As the National Women’s Council point out cuts to public expenditure here affect those on low and middle incomes most. They also affect women most.

However, our politics has still not evolved to such a point that our political parties concern themselves with tailoring their message to female voters — who make up half of the total electorate.

This is why I welcome the anger of the Fine Gael women and their female colleagues in Leinster House. It signals a mindset shift. It indicates that expectations have been raised, that the continuation of the attitude that those with penises are best qualified to govern, is no longer acceptable, or at least becoming increasingly unacceptable. Enda Kenny needs to get with it.

Female voters will hopefully take their cue from this. As we begin the run-in to the next general election women should expect to be courted as a voting bloc of high status, and they need to start thinking about how they might use their political clout.


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