Online abuse an ‘increasing barrier’ to women in politics

New research has found political parties play a key role in enabling gender balance

 Green Party Cllr Claire Byrne on her election in 2014. ‘We have to make this more appealing for women,’ she said. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

Green Party Cllr Claire Byrne on her election in 2014. ‘We have to make this more appealing for women,’ she said. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

 

The lack of elected women in Irish politics is “significantly tarnishing” the international perception of Ireland as a progressive and inclusive society, the CEO of Women for Elections, Caitríona Gleeson, has said.

Ireland is currently ranked 101st in the world for female representation in the national parliament, behind countries such as Afghanistan and China. Currently women make up 22.5 per cent of Dáil members and a quarter of local councillors. The country fares best on a European level, with women comprising six of the 13 MEPs.

Ms Gleeson said the Government can move swiftly to address many of the structural barriers that deter women from running for election, such as a lack of maternity leave and insufficient financing that fails to recognise a woman’s caring responsibilities. The prevalence of sexist online abuse against public representatives is also a “systemic and increasing barrier” to women considering entering politics, Ms Gleeson said.

“Women face specific barriers with regard to self-confidence and indeed safety. The risk of on and offline abuse is a growing consideration for many women stepping forward for public office.”

Ms Gleeson was speaking at the launch of a report, entitled “More Women — Changing the Face of Politics”, which looked at the experiences of successful and unsuccessful female political candidates.

The research, based on interviews with 15 women who contested elections in 2019 and 2020, found that political parties have a key role in enabling gender balance. Some 85 per cent of women who contested the 2020 general election did so under a party banner, according to the organisation. The majority of women surveyed in the research were approached by a party before considering running as a candidate.

This was the case for Labour councillor Seána Ó Rodaigh who described herself as an “accidental politician”. She said she was surprised to have been “passed the ball” and felt it was an unmissable opportunity to improve gender diversity in local politics.

While political parties are key enablers, some of those interviewed felt they can be resistant to new candidates, particularly female ones. Some of the women felt their electoral chances had been hampered as they were put forward for seats that the party had little to no chance of winning.

Support from family and friends was also a “key recruiting factor”, with many former candidates saying they could not have stood for election without their backing.

Despite obstacles faced, the prevailing message from those interviewed was that women considering running for political office should “go for it”.

The non-partisan Women for Elections is calling for the introduction of paid maternity leave for public representatives at all levels. Speaking at the launch, Green Party councillor Claire Byrne said she returned to Dublin City Council chamber just two weeks after giving birth to both of her children and said she had to fight to bring her baby into meetings as a breastfeeding mother.

“These are things we need to address very urgently… We have to make this more appealing for women,” she said.

Gender diversity is not only about fairness and equality, but leads to “better decisions and better governance”, Ms Gleeson said. The gender quota for Dáil Éireann, which is pushing for 40 per cent women for 2024, should be viewed as a “minimum standard” and not an end point, she added.

The organisation is also recommending that gender quotas are introduced for local and Seanad elections.

“The simple fact is we need a lot more women and we need to help ensure that the women who run in the next election come from a variety of backgrounds,” Ms Gleeson said.