Ireland's ranking for female politicians is dismal

Ireland needs to improve its record on women in politics, and gender quotas are the way forward, writes Prof David Farrell

Ireland needs to improve its record on women in politics, and gender quotas are the way forward, writes Prof David Farrell

LAST WEDNESDAY’S article in this paper by Mary Minihan has sparked some controversy. The issue of gender quotas has arisen on a number of occasions, most recently sparked by the recommendations of the Joint Committee on the Constitution in its report late last month that steps be taken to encourage political parties to field more women candidates.

The committee stepped back from firm proposals for gender quotas over concerns on the constitutionality of such a move, but this hasn't stopped the emergence of debate on the subject. Last Wednesday's Irish Timesarticle was striking in that so many of Ireland's existing women TDs were opposed (in some cases implacably) to gender quotas. This raises an interesting question over whether these women TDs are right, or indeed have a right, to hold to this position. Are gender quotas right for Ireland?

Here are three facts that help me to make up my mind on this.

First, Ireland has a consistently dismal international record when it comes to women in politics. According to the most recent data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Ireland is ranked joint 82nd in the world in terms of the representation of women (less than 14 per cent of TDs in the current Dáil are women).

This is not an unusual position for Ireland in the world rankings. In fact, this represents a high point: the current representation of women TDs is one of the highest in our history. Contrast this with the Swedish parliament, where almost half (46 per cent) of its members are women, or the Dutch parliament (41 per cent), or the Finnish parliament (40 per cent). Indeed, of our 27 fellow EU member states just four countries fare worse in this regard (Cyprus, Romania, Hungary and Malta).

Second, while there has been an increase in the number of women TDs in Ireland, the rate of increase (from 4 per cent in 1997 to 13 per cent today) is very slow. Across the world’s democracies the curve is significantly steeper. And while a number of factors could account for this, gender quotas have played a significant role. In the 1990s some form of gender quota was in use in about 20 countries; that figure has mushroomed in a little over a decade to more than 100 countries.

Third, Irish political parties consistently run only a handful of women candidates. In 2007 just over 17 per cent of the candidates were women (with Fianna Fáil performing worst: only 13 per cent of their candidates were women). The Irish high point was 1997 when between them the political parties almost managed to break through the 20 per cent barrier.

There are whole swathes of Irish countryside that have never seen a woman candidate, constituencies where in election after election voters are not even given the option of a single woman candidate they might consider voting for. The problem is in large part one of (short) supply: put simply, the parties are not fielding enough women candidates.

In summary, Ireland has far fewer women politicians than its international contemporaries, its record in this regard is steadily worsening, and Irish parties field very few women candidates. If other countries have utilised gender quotas effectively as a means of improving the balance of representation (notably Belgium, Costa Rica, South Africa and Sweden), perhaps we should too.

Ideally quotas should be implemented as part of a wider package of reforms: by themselves, quotas are not a magic bullet. In this sense, the opponents of such a move make valid points about the need for a range of other measures that should be considered, such as: attention to childcare, family-friendly meeting hours, and so on. Steps like these would do much to help improve the gender balance in the Dáil; the question is whether they would be enough to make the steep change required to bring Ireland up to international norms.

Quotas work best when they fit in with other features of institutional design. Some critics argue that Ireland’s single-transferable-vote electoral system would make it difficult for quotas to work because voters would continue to favour male over female candidates. And, indeed, research suggests male candidates attract a higher vote dividend. However, the evidence shows there are voters (of both gender) who will vote for women: the 1997 Irish National Election Study revealed two-thirds of voters were supportive of having more women in politics (with that proportion being greater among women respondents). And close examination of comparative trends reveals it is lack of women candidates (supply) that has far greater impact than lack of voter support (demand) on the proportions of women politicians.

The last word on this should be left to Professor Mona Lena Krook, who has published an award-winning book on gender quotas. In a comment on, Krook weighs up the pros and cons, before concluding: “On balance, the international evidence suggests that quotas are necessary in order to achieve major changes in women’s access to elected office.”

David Farrell is Professor, School of Politics and International Relations, University College Dublin

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