By Michelle O’Donnell Keating
Women are increasingly visible in senior positions in Irish life. The Tánaiste is a woman, the Chief Justice is a woman, the Director of Public Prosecutions is a woman, the Garda Commissioner is a woman, the Chief Executive Officer designate of the Bank of Ireland is a woman. And there are 35 women TDs in the Dáil — an all-time high.
This is all good news for those of us who believe that more diversity will lead to more robust decision making and to policies which represent and reflect the needs of the entire population.
Women’s representation in the 32nd Dáil was, of course, helped by the introduction of a gender quota in the 2016 General Election. This required political parties to ensure that at least 30 per cent of their candidates were female or face a 50 per cent loss of state funding.
Women now account for 22 per cent of TDs compared with just 15 per cent in 2011. However, Ireland still ranks just 81st in the Inter Parliamentary Union’s global ranking of countries when measured by female representation in parliament, a reminder, if one were needed, that we still have work to do.
At local level the story is similar: women make up only 16 per cent of elected representatives, an increase of just one per cent in ten years, despite comprising about one third of the membership of the main political parties.
Women for Election has welcomed the quota. But research shows that the reasons for women’s under-representation in politics are complex.
Women appear to be less confident in putting themselves forward for selection than men; they tend to have less access to the financial resources required to stand for election; they find the candidate selection process hard to navigate; they may find the male dominated political culture off-putting; and they find childcare a barrier to entering politics as they are more likely to have this primary responsibility.
Last year, a book published by two US academics came up with the slightly counter-intuitive conclusion that the vast majority of women who run for office in the United States are treated by the media and voters no differently from men. It concluded that women are under-represented not because of what happens on the campaign trail, but because they are much less likely to run in the first place. And, the authors argued, that misperceptions about bias against female candidates are among the reasons they don’t run.
And while not everyone will agree with those findings, the research certainly confirms our long-held view that if we are to achieve a true republic of opportunity, encouraging women to run should be a key plank in any serious initiative to help improve women’s representation in politics.
Hard measures such as quotas need to be supplemented by additional supports such as training programmes and women’s political networks. And that is where Women for Election has an important role to play. As a not-for-profit, non-partisan organisation, we want to see more women in politics and we want to create the opportunity to help them get ready to run.
Tonight (Thursday June 15th) Women for Election is launching a crowdfunding campaign to raise €50,000. The funds will subsidise training for 300 women to stand for election. The campaign also aims to encourage more women into politics.
Women for Election has a strong track record of providing practical support to inspire, equip and inform women entering politics. We have trained more than 1,000 women since we were founded in 2012.
Of the 194 women who secured seats in the 2014 local elections, 50 per cent were trained on Women for Election programmes, while in the 2016 General Election, 40 per cent of the newly elected women TDs had been through the programmes.
Our programmes provide high quality political training focused on supporting women to win. Delivered by a variety of experts the programmes cover all aspects of political campaigns, including building committed campaign teams, effective planning and administration, fundraising and budgeting, message development, presentation skills and managing the media.
We aim to inspire women to consider a career in politics, to equip them with the tools and techniques to get elected and to inform them of the benefits of becoming more politically active. We are also urging people to let their friends, colleagues and family members know if they see women they believe have what it takes to make a difference in politics. And to remind them that if they are not in, they can’t win.
Michelle O’Donnell Keating is chair and co-founder of Women for Election. You can donate to the campaign at this link www.womenforelection.ie/donate.