2015, but some remain preoccupied with women politicians’ dress

There will be a more pronounced female tone to the election debate next year than ever before

Shock! Horror! .... Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances Fitzgerald, wore same suit two days in a row.   Above,   speaking during a citizenship ceremony at the Department. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Shock! Horror! .... Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances Fitzgerald, wore same suit two days in a row. Above, speaking during a citizenship ceremony at the Department. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins


I have a confession to make. Sometimes I wear the same suit two days in a row. Indeed, there have even been weeks where I have worn the same suit for three or four days.

I would like to be able to pretend that this is part of a deliberate strategy on my part to avoid what psychologists call “decision fatigue”. President Obama, for example, recently explained to Vanity Fair magazine how he nearly always wears a blue suit, a white shirt and a red tie. “I’m trying to pare down decisions,” he said. “I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

In my case, however, it comes down to convenience or laziness. Sometimes I just forget what suit I was wearing yesterday.

Luckily I’m not in the public eye each day because this week, believe it or not, the Wednesday edition of a national newspaper decided it was newsworthy that a politician seemed to have worn the same suit on Monday and on Tuesday.

The politician in question was, of course, a woman. The eagle eyes in the Daily Mail spotted that the suit worn by Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald at an event about rural crime on Tuesday looked like one she had worn at another press event on Monday.

So important did they view this revelation that they gave it almost as much prominence in the newspaper as coverage of the event itself, and, indeed, felt it had to be illustrated with two photographs of her wearing the outfit in question.

Old attitudes

For all the current focus on equality, gender quotas and women in politics, old attitudes endure.

With some, it seems, women politicians are still to be judged for what they wear rather than what they do or say.

I don’t pay much attention to these things but Fitzgerald always seems very well turned out. Much more importantly, however, she is politically accomplished and an impressive Minister.

Her predicament this week bodes ill for the dozens of female candidates in the forthcoming general election. Many of them are, like their male colleagues, busy these weeks selecting campaign photographs for literature and posters. Some day soon they will also have to sort out their campaign wardrobe. Any good strategist would, sadly, have to advise the female candidates to spend more time on these campaign aspects.

The depressing reality is that female candidates will find that their photos and their outfits will be the focus of much greater attention than their male colleagues, even among female voters.

In the forthcoming election we will have a record number of women candidates because a new law gives parties a massive financial incentive to ensure that nationally 30 per cent or more of their candidates are female.

Already about 120 female candidates have been selected by parties or have declared an intention to run as Independents. This financial incentivising of gender quotas is a necessary evil. Gender quotas are an instrument of last resort, and in the Irish political system we are well past that point.

The parties are currently at the final stages of their candidate selection processes. This is always when the most intense rows emerge and this time some of these rows are erupting along the gender quota fault line.

The controversies about female candidates in individual constituencies that have made the headlines in recent months arise from decisions within the parties about how the targets are to be met, not from the national quotas themselves.

It remains to be seen if this surge in female candidate selection will transmit into a dramatic increase in the numbers of female TDs. The precedents in other countries suggest that it should.

One thing is certain, however: there will be a more pronounced female tone to the election debate and contest next year than there has ever been. The prominence, presence and impact of women candidates during the 2016 election campaign will be striking.

New law

Inevitably some people have struggled to adjust to or even accept the need for the new law. Maybe, in addition to this week’s focus on the attire of a Minister, that highlights that gender quotas is the beginning of a journey to attain real equality.

Even if incentivising gender quotas works, we will still have only scratched the surface in terms of addressing mindsets and also tackling some of the practical challenges women face in entering politics, succeeding in politics, and staying in politics.

These challenges include, for example, the unsocial working hours, the travel required for rural deputies in particular, and the expectation in most constituencies that the deputy be ever available.

This week new Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau announced a cabinet line-up in which half the ministers were female.

When asked why he had done this, he replied “because it’s 2015”.