Leo Varadkar’s Government of all the (male) talents

Men still outnumber women by more than three to one in the Oireachtas

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with most of his newly-appointed Ministers of State at Government Buildings this week. Only three out 19 Ministers of State are women. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with most of his newly-appointed Ministers of State at Government Buildings this week. Only three out 19 Ministers of State are women. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Leo Varadkar may be wondering this weekend about the barrage of criticism he has received for Government appointments which maintained the gender balance among senior ministers and changed it only minimally among ministers of state.

After all, Fine Gael has more women TDs in the current Dáil than any other party. With Labour, it was responsible for the introduction for the first time of political gender quotas. And no government in the history of the State has had more female Cabinet ministers than this one.

But the criticism may itself be a positive indication of how the introduction of a gender quota requirement for election candidates at the last election is already having a much-needed impact on public expectations about the culture and conduct of Irish politics. More than 100 countries now have gender quotas as part of their political systems, and they are having a profound effect.

The Taoiseach’s defenders probably made matters worse for him by claiming that all appointments had been made entirely on merit. This was rightly greeted with derision, given the role which geography and loyalty to the leader clearly played. It also, unwittingly or not, restated the most common argument made by opponents of quotas – that they are antithetical to meritocratic principles. In fact, research in Sweden in the early 1990s showed that gender quotas actually increased the competence of politicians. As a result, the quotas there became known colloquially as the “Crisis of the Mediocre Man”.

We may see increasing pressure for future taoisigh to take a more pro-active position than Varadkar, whose self-imposed stricture of not appointing any first-term TDs to ministerial office limited the number of women who could be considered. That decision appears arbitrary, given that a number of the Taoiseach’s own colleagues became ministers during their first terms.

Studies since the 2016 general election show the public has become more positively disposed to the concept of quotas, with the gap in support between men and women on the issue almost disappearing. However, there is a still a sharp gender divide amongst those who ran for office, with female candidates much more likely than men to strongly support quotas. In this regard, the observation that Varadkar’s own political inner circle includes very few women may be relevant.

The process of achieving a better gender balance in politics has only just begun. The scale of the challenge will be vividly illustrated over the coming months, when fundamental questions about pregnancy, abortion and women’s health will be debated by an Oireachtas where men still outnumber women by more than three to one. In leading the necessary change in culture and attitudes, the executive surely has a greater role to play than was demonstrated this week.

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