Opinion: A woman’s place is in the Oireachtas

Now that we have one in five female TDs, it’s time to change the culture of the old boys club

Josepha Madigan who was elected in the Stillorgan ward , with her husband Finbarr Hayes and their sons Luke (8) and Daniel (10). Photograph: Dave Meehans

Josepha Madigan who was elected in the Stillorgan ward , with her husband Finbarr Hayes and their sons Luke (8) and Daniel (10). Photograph: Dave Meehans

 

Women’s equality has come a long way since the days of the marriage bar and the contraception train, but when it came to women in politics, up until a week ago, Ireland ranked 88th in the world in terms of women’s representation, and we placed 25th out of 28th in the EU.

On International Women’s Day, women in politics is an important topic. Women’s representation matters - you can’t have a say in policy when you’re not at the table and society is not served best by excluding over half the population.

The National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) has argued for over 40 years that the absence of women’s voice at the political table has far reaching consequences. These include a lack of role models for girls and young women, as well as the absence of of affordable childcare, failure to address violence against women, and the prioritisation of tax cuts over investment in public services.

Progress wasn’t happening without quotas: 20% of candidates in 1997 were women, but this fell to 18% in 2002, 17% in 2007 and 15% in 2011. It took 19 years for the percentage of women in the Dail to increase from 12% to 15%.

Now though, in just one election it’s gone from 15% to 22%.

Quotas were needed to accelerate the pace of change for women in politics, and they worked. We expect that the quota will take three elections before we see its full effect. The next government need to replicate this success and appoint equal numbers of women and men as Ministers, and delivering quotas for local elections.

But quotas didn’t just increase the number of women, they changed the party selection process. Political parties who did not have women candidates available were forced to dig deep, and rethink their selection criteria, and analyse what values they look for in a candidate. For parties with women available, they were forced to confront their unconscious gender bias, and question why these women were not previously being selected.

Next, we must change the culture of the Dail. A woman’s place is in the Oireachtas, and now that we have one in five female TDs, it’s time to change the culture of the old boys club.

One of the most fundamental reforms needed is to change how our parliament operates. This will help to not only ensure that we welcome and retain more women, and more diverse types of women, in politics but also that we fundamentally shift how politics is seen and experienced by citizens.

Politicians must listen to the electorate, and respect their move away from established party politics, as demonstrated in the ballot box. The Oireachtas must become less party oriented and less hierarchical. Committees must be empowered, and their Chairs elected rather than selected. Solidarity must be promoted through the establishment of a Women’s Caucus, where the women of the Oireachtas, work together to find solutions to specific issues across party lines.

We need to make the Oireachtas more women friendly, and more family friendly. TDs have previously spoken of their surprise at finding out the Dail does not allow for family leave; maternity and paternity leave should now be introduced for TDs and Senators in the lifetime of the next Dail. We also need to see the Dail working more business hours, and using video conferencing and remote voting.

The 32nd Dail should conduct a gender audit and establish a clear plan for making policies and practices more gender sensitive, as well as developing a ‘Code of Conduct’ to promote a culture of respect and investing in politicians through gender sensitive training and professional development programme.

Critically if this government is to deliver for women and live up to their promises to address the inequalities which women experience, it needs to finally provide affordable quality childcare and out of school hours care for parents; to hold a referendum to remove the 8th amendment from the Constitution to bring an end to the hypocrisy of forcing women to travel to access abortion; and also to address the unacceptably high levels of violence against women with legislation, appropriate sanction and investment. We need a Dail that works for everyone and delivers real change to build a new society, based on values of equality, diversity, participation and meaningful citizen engagement: a truly democratic society.

Orla O’Connor is Director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI). For more information, see nwci.ie.

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