Gender Quotas – a necessary evil?

This article was originally published in The Mayo News on Tuesday 9th April 2015.

Spring is in the air, bringing with it longer days and glorious sunshine. But mixed with the scent of fresh cut grass and cherry blossom, there’s the distinct whiff of a general election, and while in theory, we’re nearly a year away from returning to the polls, politicians are already in full-on electioneering mode. One intriguing element of the next election will be the influence of gender quotas. All political parties will face losing half their funding unless at least 30% of candidates put forward are women.

A drastic measure? Consider this. 566 candidates ran in the 2011 General Election. 86 were women.  25 won seats, meaning that under 14% of our TDs are women – abysmal by international standards. Women’s skills and experience are therefore not proportionally represented in decision-making that affects everyone. This, despite acknowledgement that balanced political participation by both sexes means fairer, more effective democracies – something, surely to which we should all aspire?

So why aren’t women running for election? Commonly cited as barriers to proportional female representation in Ireland are the Five Cs: Cash, Culture, Childcare, Confidence and Candidate Selection. These five factors are interlinked, each impacting the other to create barriers to female participation.

Take cash, to start. Running for election is expensive. Women are economically less well-off then men (this is a fact!). Employments rates drop significantly when children arrive, and many women – who generally still bear primary responsibility for family life – balance this by working part-time, restricting public involvement. Last year, Mayor of Tralee, Pat Hussey resigned from Fine Gael, citing gender quotas. Women, he claimed were being “pushed in” by his party, excluding more experienced members. Mr Hussey, incidentally, claimed to have no problem with women joining councils, but felt factors like babysitting would make it prohibitively expensive for them – an attitude which sharply undermines the role of men in childcare. Which in turn, leads me to culture – the core of it all.

Women battle culture all the time. They’re expected to do more. We have higher expectations of them. Female politicians aren’t just judged on performance, they’re also critiqued on image, appearance, even their voices. When are male politicians subjected to such scrutiny? You can see why confidence, the fourth C is a factor. A key objection to quotas is that women will be selected purely to “make up numbers”; not because they are the best possible candidate. Essentially, a fear that quotas will elect incompetent women at the expense of good men. The economic crash doesn’t say much about the competency of those running the country at the time. Where was accountability and meritocracy then? Why are we now suggesting that women need to prove competency, where men never had to?

Finally, while all of the above contribute to candidate selection difficulties, there is a supply and demand problem. Parties select election candidates, so selector attitudes can contribute – if male candidates have been the norm, breaking the mould can be hard. However, a lack of supply of female candidates putting themselves forward (for the reasons above) restricts those who do want to run women. The vicious circle continues!

So is imposing gender quotas the means of breaking this cycle?

I’m not fully convinced. Quotas are a crude measure, which ignore the issues underpinning the problem. Rather, we need to address barriers that dissuade women in the first place. Childcare, for example, should be viewed not as a female issue, but as a family one. Family-friendly policies may help, but however – and here lies the critical argument! – unless women are adequately represented in the first place, who will drive the change necessary to attract more women into politics?

Evidence also suggests that increased visibility of females in politics can mobilise women, resulting in greater involvement. So while gender quotas aren’t in themselves the answer, I can’t help feeling that – as a temporary measure – they’ll help fast-track some reform necessary to encourage involvement, and so are worth a shot. I therefore reluctantly find myself in favour. Recognising and addressing the issue is a vital first step, so here’s hoping that the outcome of quotas can prove that this is more than just tokenism, and will result in solid, positives outcomes for society as a whole.

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Media still too quick and willing to stigmatise depression

This column was published in The Mayo News on Tuesday 31st March 2015.

It was difficult last week to miss coverage of the Germanwings plane crash that claimed 150 lives in the French Alps. A catastrophe of unimaginable proportions, it embodied every private fear we’ve all tried to bury when getting on a plane. The horror experienced by the 150 passengers on board as it dawned on them what was about to happen is the stuff of our worst nightmares, and the proximity of the tragedy undoubtedly cast a chill over us all.

Co-pilot Andreas Lubitz is now, sadly, a household name. Remarkable by his ordinariness, his Facebook page depicted him as a smiling, leather jacket-clad sportsman interested in travel, music, and clubs. Apparently popular, he appeared well-known and respected in his community. By all accounts, a perfectly normal young man who happened to fly planes for a living.

So what made Lubitz decide to commit, apparently out of the blue, such an abhorrent act of violence in such a calm and calculated manner?

The simple answer is that we don’t know. No-one could, at this point, claim to know with certainty. But at the time of writing, on Friday morning, the majority of the tabloid newspapers claimed to have the answer.

It was depression, they screamed. It emerged that Andreas Lubitz is said to have sought psychiatric help for “a bout of heavy depression” six years ago, which necessitated a break from his flight training. After he was cleared to resume he passed all subsequent tests – including psychological tests – with flying colours, and was subject to regular medical checks.

These last details appear to have been overlooked by many of the tabloids, who, high on outrage, published screaming headlines such as: “German who deliberately crashed Airbus had a long history of depression – so why was he let anywhere near a plane?”, “Why on earth was he allowed to fly?”, ”Depressed pilot crashed jet” and charmingly, “Cockpit maniac”.

While the families of the deceased should be prioritised and respected in the analysis of this disaster, responsible media reporting should not be overlooked, and the messages emanating from those headlines demonstrate that while we might think we have progressed when it comes to normalising mental health, ultimately, the willingness to stigmatise those with problems is never far away.

If depression is being touted as the primary reason for Lubitz’s actions, it any wonder there is still a reluctance to talk about mental health? In particular, is it any wonder that there is a particular reluctance to disclose mental health problems in the workplace? Nearly 6 in 10 people believe that being open about a mental health problem at work would negatively affect their career prospects. Reading headlines like this, is it any wonder?

Discourse like this perpetuates the damaging myth that those with mental illness are more likely to be violent. Should no-one who has suffered depression in their lifetime be permitted to hold positions with responsibility for the safety of other people? If that were the case, we’d have a lot of people sitting at home. As someone who has, should I be forbidden to get behind the wheel of a car, lest I get a murderous urge to plough it into someone? While everyone’s experience is different, many will understand that when depression strikes, it’s often about as much as you can do to get out of bed in the morning, let alone murder 150 people.

We can speculate endlessly on what drove Lubitz to do what he did. Mental health issues may have been a contributory factor, but it is impossible to attribute them as a cause.  Too frequently, when a violent act is committed, the tendency is to point to mental ill-health as the primary reason. And when the media presents it in such a way, it’s not just hurtful to those of us who have experienced problems, it’s damaging and it’s irresponsible. It’s also downright lazy.

At the time of writing, investigators claimed they had found a ‘clue’ in Lubitz’s home that might shed some light on why he did what he did. For the families and friends of the deceased, we can only hope that such answers are forthcoming. But they will be cold comfort.

 

Germanwings plane crash Alps memorial