fbpx Skip to main content

In any discussion about women and politics, the phrase gendered nature of our political institutions invariably gets an airing. But what does it actually mean?

What are Political Institutions?

Let’s start with political institutions. These are the rules and conventions around which political life is organised. Political institutions can be formal or informal. One example of a formal institution is the constitution which sets out rules on how constituencies are formed, how elections shall be conducted, and so on. Political parties are another example of formal institutions, given they have rules about membership and candidate selection. Standing orders in the Dáil and in Councils which govern how business is conducted are further examples of formal political institutions.

Institutions can also be informal. Examples of informal institutions are conventions and patterns of behaviour. If you have ever been told ‘sure that’s the way it’s always been’, or ‘this is the way things are done around here’, then you have found an informal institution! Informal institutions stick over time and become accepted by many as the normal way of doing things. When these conventions and normal ways of doing things concern the organisation of politics they are often referred to as political culture.

Formal political institutions are neutral on gender. Even gender quota rules which are associated with assisting women are gender neutral as the legislation states that at least 30% of the candidates must be women and at least 30% men. Although formal political institutions are gender neutral, they do not always have a gender neutral outcome. In other words, political institutions may adversely impact or benefit women more than men, and vice versa. An adverse outcome for women usually happens where formal political institutions interact with informal institutions outside the political domain, and with political culture within the political domain. So we can say that the relationship between formal and informal institutions is at the root of the gendered nature of political institutions because it shapes behaviour, benefits, and outcomes along gendered lines.

An Example of the Gendered Nature of Political Institutions: Candidate Selection

Let’s work through an example of the gendered nature of political institutions to illustrate the point. A beneficial outcome for men is that they are over-represented in both the Dáil and in Local Government. This is despite the electoral system (a formal political institution) being gender neutral. After the most recent elections, 76% of councillors were men and 77% of TDs. In the zero sum game of political representation this translates to an adverse outcome for women. They are under-represented.

We say this is an adverse outcome for women for several reasons. Firstly it means that women are excluded from an equal share of power and raises questions about the health of our democracy. We can also look at the representation of women’s interests and whether these are being adequately addressed in decision-making arenas where men are consistently over-represented. The evidence speaks for itself in areas where we know women are affected more than men. Just a few examples. Think about the lack of investment in front line services for domestic and sexual abuse. Look at the magnitude of the gender pay and pensions gaps and what a difference freely available high quality early years childcare (with adequate pay for the childcare workforce) would make. And so on.

But how does the gendered nature of political institutions bring about the adverse outcome of under-representation for women?

Let’s start with informal institutions outside the political domain. A traditional view of women’s social role still prevails; a role which prioritises women performing home and family based duties. Research has found that for mothers with political ambitions, the practicality of pursuing a time-consuming career in tandem with child-rearing is an issue of greater significance for them than it is for their male colleagues and is exacerbated when a politician is from a constituency outside Dublin[i]. Many women running in the 2019 local elections expressed how difficult it was to manage the logistical elements of care responsibilities while campaigning, and characterised it as a constant source of stress throughout their campaign[ii].

Many women opt out of paid employment to undertake care responsibilities or work part-time. Compared to men, this leaves women with unequal access to the key political resources needed to run for office: Time, networks, and the money necessary to build and maintain their political credentials locally. This puts women at a disadvantage when it comes to candidate selection[iii].

Candidate selection takes us to the informal institutions inside the political domain. In theory our electoral system should provide better opportunities for women than other systems because there is more than one seat available in constituencies. But informal convention dictates that political parties should not risk fragmenting the party vote excessively by running too many candidates and will specifically look for candidates with localness and incumbency – characteristics that tend to favour ‘local sons’[iv]. Evidence of this is in the fact that the three largest political parties did just enough to meet the bare minimum of the quota requirements (Fine Gael 30.5%; Fianna Fáil 31.0%; Sinn Féin 33% of candidates were women[v]).

Both men and women can satisfy the ‘localness’ characteristic in that you find both in GAA clubs and business and civic groups. But research finds that they occupy different roles in these networks[vi]. Women end up in support or secretarial roles which does not afford them influence and visibility and isn’t as easily leveraged into political capital[vii]. In terms of incumbency, after the 2020 general election 12 (out of 39) constituencies have no woman TD. The picture isn’t any brighter in local authorities. After the 2019 election, 18 (out of 31) councils have 75% or higher male representation.

So even though formal political institutions such as political parties allow equal participation, it is the entrenched informal institutions (the norms and conventions) that create unequal outcomes. Recognising this, SHE calls on political parties to get real about enabling equality in political representation. How? Well just one way of doing this is to STOP missing opportunities to counter informal institutions that mitigate against women, such as incumbency, when formal institutions like co-option to councils and Seanad nominations allow you to do something about it.

SHE looks forward to working with political parties to advance and support the representation of women in rural constituencies.


[i] Galligan and Buckley (2018) Women in Politics. Chapter 8 in Coakley and Gallagher (ed.s) Politics in the Republic of Ireland. Routledge: Abbingdon Oxon.

[ii] Cullen and McGing (2019) Women Beyond the Dáil: more women in local government. NWCI: Dublin

[iii] Galligan and Buckley (2018) Women in Politics. Chapter 8 in Coakley and Gallagher (ed.s) Politics in the Republic of Ireland. Routledge: Abbingdon Oxon.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] https://www.rte.ie/news/election-2020/2020/0123/1110319-general-election/ (accessed 09/03/2020)

[vi] Cullen and McGing (2019) Women Beyond the Dáil: more women in local government. NWCI: Dublin

[vii] ibid