SHESpeaks about Women in Government
You wouldn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Or both. On Saturday 27th June 2020 our new Taoiseach Micheál Martin announced his cabinet. And once more the low number of women in politics was laid bare for all to see. Fifteen people make up the new cabinet which is the apex of government power in Ireland. They head up the Departments of State and will set the policy parameters and priorities that will affect us all for the foreseeable future. Eleven of them are men. Just four are women.
Supporting them will be Ministers of State who are sometimes referred to as junior ministers. The most senior of the Ministers of State is assigned to the Department of the Taoiseach and is referred to as the Chief Whip. The job of the Chief Whip is largely concerned with the organisation of government business. The Chief Whip and two other Ministers of State are termed ‘super juniors’ and along with the Attorney General, and the Secretary General to the Government (a civil servant who takes the minutes) can attend cabinet meetings but may not speak unless specifically called upon. Of the three super juniors, two are women (Pippa Hackett and Hildergarde Naughton) and one man (Dara Calleary, the Chief Whip). There is an opportunity here for the Taoiseach to somewhat rebalance the over-representation of men in the cabinet in the Minister of State appointments.
The other announcement yesterday was the Taoiseach’s appointments to the Seanad. There are eleven of these. Two are men. Nine are women. 40% of Senators are now women, which is most welcome.
Why is it welcome? The over-representation of men in cabinet and elsewhere in local and national government is a problem but not because women necessarily have different qualities and values to men. It is a problem because making sure that decisions bring about equitable outcomes can only really occur when the people in the room start to think about the different experiences of policy decisions and policy outcomes for men and women. For that to happen we require people in the room who experience policy decisions in different ways. This argument is also why there is a need for more diversity in politics overall and why the appointment of Senator Eileen Flynn is particularly welcome.
How can we change things so that a 40:60 ratio of women to men in any of our institutions of government becomes an unremarkable norm? Or even a 60:40 ratio in favour of women?
A delve into the route that the cabinet took to get to where they are proves instructive. All bar three of the cabinet started out in county or city councils. In fact by our reckoning, only 25 of the TDs elected in February did not have council experience behind them.
The three who were not former councillors are Helen McEntee, Simon Coveney and Stephen Donnelly, although the first two are from political families which is another acknowledged support for entering political life.
We draw attention to councils because the number of women in our councils has been very slowly increasing over the last year. After the 2019 local elections 23.8% of councillors were women. Vacancies between local elections can be made through a process called co-option and sine the 2019 elections co-options have increased the percentage of women to 25.5%. The (very small) jump in the number of women councillors is largely attributable to more replacements for the 32 brand new TDs to the Dáil in February 2020 who left a vacant council seat behind them going to women rather than to men. So another big opportunity presents itself now because another seven council seats have just become vacant from the Taoiseach’s Seanad appointments to add to the twelve vacancies created by April’s Seanad elections.
If our political parties are serious about gender equality in political representation there are a four things they can do.
- Look at the current opportunities presented by the co-option process.
- Start to pay attention now to who their 2024 candidates for councils will be. The numbers of women councillors in rural Ireland indicates a particular problem in rural council areas.
- Legislate to bring in quotas for local elections. It is where TDs are emerging from.
- Stop treating quotas for general elections as targets. The three largest parties did just enough to meet the 30% requirement for women candidates.
SHE is a feminist, community led, rural initiative to support women into political life. We aim to demystify politics through #SHESchool, our free online political education classes – see here for more details. We have a political research agenda underway and we work with elected women councillors to support them through our masterclasses.
Please get in touch if you would like to know more. firstname.lastname@example.org