Women in politics: The need for better representation

Trinity Politics Society hosted their annual Women in Politics conference, discussing the role of women in Irish politics

As part of Women’s Week, Trinity Politics Society held its annual ‘Women in Politics’ event in the GMB on Tuesday. Each of the four speakers in attendance gave a talk on some aspects of the role of women in politics in Ireland, the obstacles they face and how these may be overcome, followed by a short Q&A session.  The speakers present each offered a different approach to the topic, based on their different backgrounds and experience with politics. The prevailing issue touched upon by all, however, was the need to get more women involved in politics in Ireland.

First up was Ivana Bacik, leader of the Labour Party in the Seanad since 2011. Bacik is also the Reid Professor of Criminal Law, Criminology and Penology at Trinity and became a fellow in 2005. Joan Burton, former Tánaiste and Leader of the Labour Party followed Bacik. Gail McElroy, a professor of political science in Trinity, who has won numerous accolades- including the foundation scholarship , the Fulbright Scholarship  and the Carl Albert Best Dissertation Award from the American Political Science Association was third to speak. The final speaker was Cary Bailey, a fourth year Trinity student with an extensive history of activism, who served as the Vice Chair of the Social Democrats from January 2018 to February 2019 and served as the party’s national coordinator for the Repeal the Eighth campaign.

“When she looked around the Oireachtas back in 2007, it struck her ‘just how pale, male, and stale it was’.’’

Bacik welcomed the audience, which had grown busy in the intimate surroundings of the Conversation Room, and told them they were in the company of “three of my favourite women”. The Labour senator told the audience of her beginnings in politics in Trinity’s Students’ Union, reminding her listeners how far women’s rights have come in Ireland by telling of how she was nearly imprisoned for her activism on the Eighth Amendment with the Students’ Union, but was saved through the intervention of Mary Robinson. Despite this progress, however, Bacik still emphasised the lack of women in Irish politics, claiming that when she looked around the Oireachtas back in 2007, it struck her “just how pale, male, and stale it was”. She mentioned how a report was compiled in 2009 which found five obstacles to women in politics, broken down into five Cs: lack of cash, lack of confidence, lack of childcare, an old boys culture, and candidate selection procedures. It is this final C, the issue of candidate selection procedures, that Bacik placed particular attention on. The absence of a level playing field among potential candidates was emphasised here as the old response of “why not just make it by merit?” was dismissed by Bacik, who highlighted the three Gs that get in the way of it: gender, geography, and genetics (referring to nepotism). In response to this obstacle, Bacik commended the positive impact brought about by the gender quota introduced in 2016 which increased the ratio of women in the Dáil from 16% in 2011 up to 22%.

Fellow Labour member Joan Burton similarly reminded the audience of the progress made by women’s rights, mentioning that last December marked the 100th anniversary of women being able to vote in Ireland. Burton provided a brief history of women’s politics in Ireland, including some details of “the revolutionary culture in Ireland” that voted Countess Markievicz as the first woman elected to the United Kingdom House of Commons in 1918. After independence, Burton told us, it seemed ‘‘almost like a light went out’’, and it was not until the 1970s that Ireland would have its first female cabinet minister since Markievicz. Burton described the election of Mary Robinson as president of Ireland in 1990 as the greatest change in women’s politics in Ireland,  which ‘‘opened the door’’ for a lot of other female politicians, particularly within the Labour party, Burton included, as she was elected to Dáil Éireann at the 1992 general election. Burton advocated that aspiring female politicians look at “the range of jobs available”, and drew particular notice to the role of an advisor, which she told us is a role that is hugely male dominated but that can be an excellent point to begin a political career.

“It would seem more female voices are needed in politics to voice the concerns of women in a number of important areas.”

Gail McElroy took a different approach to the problem of insufficient numbers of women in Irish politics, drawing on some of the findings gathered from the Irish Research Council funded project she is working on, which examines the differences in political ambition amongst Irish men and women. McElroy criticised the argument you see ‘‘trotted out in the Irish Times’’ that people don’t want to vote for women. She claimed instead that ‘‘Irish voters do not seem to politicise gender’’. Rather, the issue McElroy’s research has pointed towards is that not enough women are running for election in the first place, because of sociological and psychological barriers. McElroy emphasised that we can see the effect of these underlying causes when we look at research that demonstrates that female politicians have generally deviated towards issues such as education, childcare, and health more so than their male counterparts. As such it would seem more female voices are needed in politics to voice the concerns of women in a number of important areas. McElroy echoed the sentiments of previous speakers by expressing support for gender quotas as a means for tackling this issue.

Closing the event, Carly Bailey spoke of her experiences as a female politician, and expressed how she felt “imposter syndrome” and “out of place”. The Social Democrat turned back to McElroy in saying this as to indicate how her experiences reflect the data laid out by the Trinity professor, as the difficulties in deciding to run as a female political candidate in Ireland are clearly great. Bailey outlined her position as “an intersectional feminist” and extended the sentiments expressed by earlier speakers to encompass the many “different ways in which people can be oppressed”. 

“When somebody says I would like to see somebody pour acid on your face, it’s hard to forget it”.

A brief Q&A followed, in which Burton emphasised the dangers of social media attacks directed towards women, something she had personal experience of, saying “when somebody says I would like to see somebody pour acid on your face, it’s hard to forget it”. Burton mentioned a study carried out by The Guardian which found these kind of online verbal attacks to be directed in a ratio of about 80:20 of women to men. In the face of this, the TD stated that she was in favour of removing the anonymity of people who make these kinds of posts. The event concluded with a final question, asking the board clarify their positions on gender quotas, to which they responded in unanimous support for them as an unfortunate necessity in Irish politics for the time being.

The speakers dealt with issues regarding the role of women in the Irish political landscape with evident passion and it was made clear that, although there is much to be done in order to achieve gender equality in politics, there was an active energy in the GMB that was keen to enact the changes necessary to reach it.

Seán McElroy

Seán McElroy is a Staff Writer for Trinity News.