Burton wants 50-50 balance in Cabinet

Fri, Mar 9, 2012, 00:00

The Minister for Social Protection bemoaned the dearth of women at the top table of politics

THE CABINET should have a 50-50 gender balance, Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton told an International Women’s Day event yesterday.

Ms Burton described as “disappointingly low” the current number of women TDs and Senators in the Oireachtas. She referred to her surprise appointment as Minister for Social Protection last March, when she had been widely tipped to get an economic ministry.

“People have speculated that I might have had a little disappointment this time last year, but actually my real disappointment on joining the Cabinet was that it wasn’t a Cabinet of 50-50,” she said.

Ms Burton said of the “about 17 people” who sit around the Cabinet table, just a few were women. Ms Burton, Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald, Minister of State Jan O’Sullivan and the first woman Attorney General, Máire Whelan, attend Cabinet.

“So women are breaking a lot of glass ceilings but there’s no doubt that in politics we don’t have a critical mass of women which would lead to, if you like, a ‘rainbow’ Cabinet in Ireland with much stronger representation of women and men,” Ms Burton said.

Adopting a controversial phrase once used by former US president Bill Clinton, she said if more women were in Cabinet “you wouldn’t always be ‘bean-counting’ how many women”. She added: “You would just see women and men there in roughly equal numbers, representing all of the experience that both have to bring.”

She welcomed the publication last December of the Electoral Amendment (Political Funding) Bill 2011, which will halve State funding to parties unless 30 per cent of their candidates at the next general election are women. She was speaking at the An Cosán lunch in the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin, which was sponsored by L’Oréal.

Earlier, journalist Olivia O’Leary, speaking at the Women for Election event in the Mansion House in Dublin, said it was “disgraceful” there were only 25 women TDs in Leinster House.

She said since the State was founded just 260 women had been elected to the Dáil, compared with 4,700 men, and that the “failure by Labour” to appoint Ms Burton to an economic ministry, after years as the party’s finance spokeswoman, was an example of a woman being “shafted” politically.

If so few senior positions were going to be given to women, despite years of apprenticeship, there was little incentive for them to enter politics. “We need to start talking about a requirement for governments to have at least 30 per cent of females in cabinet. To encourage more women you have to have more role models,” she said.

However, O’Leary stressed that women must lose any “fear of taking on some of the supposedly male, hard stuff: money and power”. She said this was a barrier women often raised for themselves. “Women, in general, . . . run away from knowledge of financial matters.”

She said women sometimes feared having to take “weighty decisions” in politics that would have consequences for other people’s lives, even though they took such “life and death” decisions in their family lives. She also said she knew male politicians who had cried over what they knew would be the consequences of the decisions they felt they had to take.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny, meanwhile, posed for photographs with a cross-party group of women TDs and Senators on the plinth outside Leinster House to mark International Women’s Day.

In Limerick about 150 male and female students marched through the city in their quest to reclaim the derogatory word “slut” and make it a term of empowerment for women.

The Slut Walk Movement began in January 2011 in Canada after a police representative told college students, during a personal safety talk, that women should avoid “dressing like sluts” to avoid becoming victims of sexual assault. According to Slut Walk campaigners, whose message has gone global, the comments failed women globally.

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“Whilst I support more women in politics, gender quota at cabinet? Should it not be based on who is the most qualified4 the job?” Kim Leonard

“Gender quotas amounts to legalised sexual discrimination. You can’t argue equality in one breath and demand special treatment in the next.” John

“Surely the two worst performers in the last cabinet were women, Harney and Coughlan.” Paul Mullan

“I wouldn’t want anyone to say I was afforded preferential treatment based on my gender anymore than I’d want to be afforded discriminatory treatment for the same reason.” JOD

“Women are slightly more than 50% of the population, should this reality not be reflected in the area of political representation?” Noreen Byrne

“Ironic that those supporting gender quotas speak of diversity but their events only ever feature one point of view.” Daniel Sullivan