Women and the 2016 General Election

This column first appeared in The Mayo News on 1st March 2016. 

While the 2016 General Election campaign itself failed to set the world on fire, the public’s interest was finally ignited precisely 48 minutes after the polls closed, when the Irish Times’ exit poll gave us a hint of just how much the political landscape was set to alter.

Now, there are so many fascinating angles from which to analyse the outcome, not least the massive task that lies ahead in forming a government, but it will be interesting to see over the course of the next Dáil term just what discernible effect, if any, the introduction of gender quotas – aimed at increasing female representation in the Dáil – will have had.

In the 2011 General Election, 86 out of 566 candidates were female. 25, or 15% of those won seats. This time out, 161 out of 546 candidates were women, and at the time of writing, at least 32 are guaranteed seats, with up to 37 potentially being elected. This would give a minimum female representation of 19%. (Update: 35 women were elected to Dáil Eireann in the 3nd General Election – 22% of deputies, representing a 40% increase on 2011).

The increase might not appear majorly significant given the low base, and should certainly reassure those worried male politicians that quotas are not actually designed to disadvantage them.  They merely present the electorate with a greater choice – and ultimately the electorate decides who to employ. Imposing quotas is a crude measure, which fails to address the root causes of low female participation, not least the family-unfriendly nature of the role. However, change needs to come from within, and women need to be visible in their participation in order to mobilise others. This is therefore a long-term project, so this weekend’s result is a move in the right direction.

The gender breakdown remains the same in Mayo, but with a new face at the table, with Fianna Fail’s Lisa Chambers replacing Fine Gael’s Michelle Mulherin. Based on this campaign, however, here is a strong possibility that we may see a more equal playing field next time out, should Sinn Fein’s Rose Conway Walsh have anything to do with it. At a national level, it is important now that there is adequate female representation at cabinet level too.

LX GM M ay 14

Dara Calleary and Lisa Chambers celebrate after being elected. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Let’s hope our new female TDs have a thick skin, given the higher level of scrutiny they will face from the public than their male counterparts. They will inevitably encounter not just political criticism, which is of course fine and necessary, but most of them will also deal with criticism of their appearance, their clothing, their mannerisms and even their voices. Sometimes this will come from their own colleagues. You only have to look at the vitriolic bullying personally directed at Joan Burton over the past five years for proof.

Let’s get this straight. It takes a hell of a lot of courage and self-belief to walk the walk and put yourself in front of the electorate, let alone take on the responsibility of governing. It’d be far easier to hurl from the ditches with the rest of us.  The very least our female TDs now deserve is to be treated with respect, and to be judged by the same standards as their male colleagues – on how they do their jobs.