We need to change way we do politics to attract more women

Opinion: Ireland is among the 10 lowest-ranked EU countries when it comes to political and economic representation of women

‘Being a politician at national level, if you are not from Dublin or nearby, means a lot of time spent away from home.’ Photograph: Alan Betson

‘Being a politician at national level, if you are not from Dublin or nearby, means a lot of time spent away from home.’ Photograph: Alan Betson

Sat, Aug 2, 2014, 00:01

Browsing Trinity News (the Trinity student newspaper) last February, I was dismayed to see how few women were running for office in the student union. Of 12 candidates, only two were female. Only one woman was elected, and while I am sure she will be excellent, she was also the only person who ran for that particular position.

No woman ran for president, or for communications or welfare. Maybe it is no big deal, or maybe it is part of a bigger picture, one highlighted yet again in the Central Statistics office (CSO) report Women and Men in Ireland 2013.

Ireland is among the 10 lowest-ranked EU countries when it comes to political and economic representation of women. The CSO’s statistical snapshot is already out of date, given that we now have more women in Cabinet than ever. However, in January, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, we ranked joint 60th in the world when it comes to women in ministerial positions, along with Kyrgyzstan, Malta, Ukraine and Uruguay. I doubt the new ministerial appointments have nudged us far up the list.

I have always believed that women are under-represented because of the sheer nastiness of our political system, and because at national level, the system is so unfriendly to family life.

Take the last presidential campaign. It was a mind-bogglingly vicious campaign, and all for an office with some influence, but virtually no legislative power. (Incidentally, during that campaign I called on Dana Rosemary Scallon to withdraw as a candidate until the serious allegations that she had covered up sexual abuse by her brother John Brown had been investigated. I am happy to acknowledge that both Dana and her brother have been cleared of wrongdoing.)

Being a politician at national level, if you are not from Dublin or nearby, means a lot of time spent away from home. Women are much less willing than men to do that, as pointed out last week by Fianna Fáil councillor Rachel Doherty as she ruled herself out of her party’s selection convention for the Roscommon-Leitrim byelection.

Does the CSO statistic that in 2013 there were apparently just 8,700 men who work full-time in the home reflect women’s preferences, or unwillingness by men to embrace work that is seen as low-status because it is not paid?

My husband is one of those 8,700 men. He does a huge amount of caring work uncomplainingly, and without much recognition. Yet he would be the first to say that women who work full-time in the home receive even less acknowledgement.

Invisible

Unpaid caring work, whether it be caring for children or elderly parents, or volunteering in the community, is almost invisible in Ireland. When we talk about women working, we almost never mean women working in unpaid caring work. We mean work in the paid economy, so-called productive work.

Unpaid caring work is not measured in gross domestic product (GDP). As Prof Pat O’Connor said in a recent letter to this newspaper, “It was estimated in 1990 that its exclusion reduced GDP by 25 to 40 per cent. The arbitrariness of this is illustrated by the fact that if a man marries his housekeeper, GDP declines.”

When women are not valued for caring work, does it also erode their confidence in their ability to succeed in a massively competitive party political system?

Political career

In 2013, the School of Public Affairs in Washington DC published a report with the somewhat unfortunate title Girls Just Wanna Not Run. Earlier research among older adults had shown that women are significantly less likely than men to express interest in a political career.

Worryingly, exactly the same pattern emerged among young women aged 18-25. There was a gap of 16 percentage points between men and women when it came to thinking about running for office.

Young women, when asked about the best way to bring about social change, were 50 per cent more likely than male respondents to say that working for a charity is the best way. Men were twice as likely as women to nominate running for political office.

The authors’ conclusions were that young men are socialised much more to think of political office and that in school, among peers and in media consumption, women are exposed to much less political information. Young women are less likely to receive encouragement to run, and less likely to think they could do a good job.

Intriguingly, the authors also believed the fact that women were less likely to play competitive sport was also a factor.

Being competitive is definitely less socially acceptable for women, but there is also some research that shows that even very young girls prefer to “tend and befriend” in response to stress, whereas fight or flight is more characteristic of men.

Research on educational video games has shown girls enjoy games that allow them to solve problems and they prefer games with real-world applications.

Maybe that explains why they are not so interested in the game of party politics?

Changing the way we play that game wouldn’t just bring in more women candidates – it would give us all a more mature politics.

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