Women still must jump too many hurdles to win in politics

Political parties have a big influence on how many women’s names appear on ballot papers

Political parties have a big influence on how many women’s names appear on ballot papers

‘FIANNA FÁIL? I would rather stick pins in my eyes. You are a load of gangsters.” Not unsurprisingly, this colourful quote provided the headline for a recent article about Mary Hanafin’s canvassing efforts.

It was said by a woman to a woman politician, and aside from its memorable imagery, it illustrates just how difficult it is to be a politician today, whether you are male or female. Contrary to feminist propaganda, the constituent did not see another woman, with whom she would have sisterly solidarity; she saw a representative of a party she despised.

Politicians in general are regarded with such disdain today that it requires a very high degree of personal confidence, and perhaps hard neck, to present oneself for election. Given the relative paucity of role models, it is not surprising that few are panting to get involved in politics.

There are all sorts of additional hurdles for women, not least because of how candidates are selected, which in some parties routinely involves back-stabbing and blood on the floor.

Given that reality, you have to change the way candidates are selected, and support women to enter that world and compete.

It will not be achieved by wishful thinking. Candidate selection has to become less opaque. Political parties are the gatekeepers here. They have a huge amount of influence on how many women eventually appear on ballot papers.

Political parties are primarily interested in achieving power so as to implement their agendas. The sad reality right across Europe is that men have a better chance than women of being elected. In fact, so marked is the tendency for men to receive more votes that a report by the European Commission speculated that it would be necessary to skew the numbers of women on the ticket to 63 per cent to achieve parity.

Therefore, there is a built-in disincentive to putting women forward. As a result, given what we know about Irish politics, it is probable that every possible means would probably be found to circumvent quotas.

There is also evidence, as Prof Mona Lena Krook, assistant professor of political science and women at Washington University has said, “When quotas are introduced in a context where women have largely been absent. . . quota women often do not have the skills or resources that would make them less vulnerable to manipulation.” (Prof Krook remains generally in favour of quotas.)

Then there is the thorny question of whether women actually want to enter politics in the first place. Childcare is often cited as a problem. Catherine Hakim, of the London School of Economics, is no stranger to controversial claims, including her recent assertion that more women are interested in securing a wealthy husband than are interested in achieving the same degree of wealth independently.

Before that, however, she did some interesting work on women and their choices. She found that women are not a homogenous group. A minority, somewhere between 10-30 per cent, are “careerist”, that is, focused on success at work. (She fits that category herself, as a voluntarily childless married woman.)

Another similarly sized minority is totally focused on home and family. The majority of women are interested in balancing work and home, with part-time work being favoured.

If she is correct, the pool of women interested in becoming involved in politics is likely to be small. For many women the slog involved would simply be a third job, not the most appealing option given that they already have two. There are many women involved in politics in Ireland, but completely unrecognised for their vital role, and also unelected. They are called wives.

Until women have husbands as supportive as many wives are, they will unlikely be able to even get on the first rung of our political system. They will find the ladder greased at every step, until we recognise that politics should not automatically mean the sacrifice of family life.

Women are more pragmatic than men. They are likely to assess with a cool eye their chances of making a significant impact on the national stage, and the competing possibility of making an irreplaceable impact on the lives of small people who are completely dependent on them. Quite often, there is simply no contest.

Let’s not get carried away, either, and presume that women in politics will lead to a better world. Women are far from a homogenous group, so when we talk about women in politics, we have to ask further questions. What women? What do we perceive their role to be?

I think it is essential to see more women in politics, but there is no universe in which I would ever have voted for Margaret Thatcher. Given her economic policies, and her vision of society, her gender would not have endeared her to me at all.

Women’s organisations sometimes shoot themselves in the foot, because they are only interested in certain types of women, who tick predictable boxes such as being pro-choice, blithely ignoring that more women than men are deeply troubled by abortion.

It is also presumed that women in politics will represent “women’s issues”. I would like to see more women in politics because they could have an impact on all sorts of issues, in all sorts of unpredictable ways.

If, as the Chinese proverb says, women hold up half the sky, they should have a decent shot at holding half the seats.