On Tuesday December 10, 34-year old Sanna Marin of the Finnish Social Democratic Party was sworn-in as Prime Minister as Finland, the third woman to occupy this position, and for now, the world’s youngest serving head of government. She leads a coalition government made up of five parties, all led by women. Including Marin, four of these five party leaders are under the age of 35.
The newly appointed 19 person cabinet consists of 12 women and seven men including the leader of the Centre Party, Katai Kulmuni (32), Green League leader Maria Ohisalo (34), the Left Alliance’s chairwoman Li Andersson (32) and Anna-Maja Henriksson (55), leader of the Swedish People’s Party of Finland.
Marin’s elevation to the Office of Prime Minister, as well as the gender and age profile of the Finnish government, is the latest example of young politicians and women achieving senior political office worldwide. A recent Irish Times graphic highlighted that in addition to Marin, the prime ministers of Ukraine, New Zealand and Haiti are all under the age of 40. Sebastian Kurz (33) is expected to return as Chancellor of Austria when coalition talks conclude over the next few weeks. Our own Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, only turned 40 earlier this year.
Young women in politics are making their presence felt. As well as prime ministers Sanna Marin and Jacinda Ardern (New Zealand), Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib are colloquially referred to as ‘The Squad’ following their election to the US House of Representatives in November 2018. All are women of colour and were aged under 45 at the time of their election, representing a new generation of US politicians from diverse demographic backgrounds.
The growing presence of women in national parliaments, increasing from an average of 12 per cent in 1997 to an average of 24 per cent in 2019, has seen more women occupy senior political office worldwide. Wide regional variations exist however, with the Nordic region leading the way on 42.5 per cent, but across the rest of Europe, the average proportion of women in national parliaments is just 27 per cent.
It is unsurprising that Nordic countries are experiencing record high levels of women elected. For over forty years, they have been world leaders in championing equality measures to facilitate and enable women’s participation in the workforce, education and public life. Research by Anne-Maria Holli, professor of political science in the University of Helsinki and Johanna Kantola, professor of gender studies in Tampere University, show that the proportion of women in the Finnish parliament has increased steadily from 30 per cent in 1983 to 47 per cent in 2019. As the proportion of women elected has increased, so too has the diversity of their backgrounds. As reported widely in recent press coverage, Sanna Marin was raised by a single mother, who later entered a same-sex relationship. She was the first of her family to attend university.
Across Europe, women currently head up government in Germany, Norway, Serbia, Iceland, Denmark, Belgium and now Finland. Others such as the UK, Poland, Latvia and Romania have also seen women occupy the role of prime minister. While four women have been appointed Tánaiste in Ireland – Mary Harney, Mary Coughlan, Joan Burton and Frances Fitzgerald – so far, the top job has been a male-only domain.
In Ireland, just under 21 per cent of the seats in Dáil Éireann are held by women, placing Ireland in 98 th position out of 190 countries worldwide for women’s political representation. While Ireland was the first country in the world to have one woman follow another woman into the position of directly elected head of State, just nineteen of the 201 people appointed to cabinet during the past 100 years have been women. Additionally, just a handful of women have occupied the position of party leader including Mary Harney (Progressive Democrats), Mary Lou McDonald (Sinn Féin), Joan Burton (Labour), Lucinda Creighton (Renua) and Catherine Murphy and Róisín Shortall (co-leaders of the Social Democrats).
Traditionally, Dáil Éireann has been a cold chamber for women. Just 114 women have been elected since 1921 in comparison to 1179 men. The reasons for women’s political under-representation are complex but usually point to the five Cs of cash, care, culture, confidence and candidate selection as gendered barriers stymying women’s access to politics. In addition, Senator and academic Ivana Bacik points to the four Gs of Irish politics – gender (being a man), genetics (family connections), geography and GAA membership - as factors advantaging male political candidacy.
In the five general elections between 1992 and 2011, prior to the adoption of the gender quota law, women’s candidacy averaged just 17.7 per cent, this, despite the fact that women’s membership of political parties was growing, and averaging between 30 and 40 per cent. The implementation of gender quotas for the first time at the 2016 general election saw a 90 per cent increase in women candidates and a 40 per cent increase in the number of women candidates elected. While gender quotas are controversial and lead to a lot of debate and discussion, the evidence worldwide is that they work to increase women’s political representation. Indeed, since the 1970s, political parties in Iceland, Sweden and Norway have adopted voluntary party quotas. In Finland, political parties don’t operate gender quotas but do expect that candidate lists for elections are gender balanced, which usually means having at least 30 per cent women candidates on the ballot.
So will Ireland see a female Taoiseach anytime soon? Going by recent opinion poll results, if we are to see a female Taoiseach emerge, then she is likely to come from either the Fine Gael or Fianna Fàil parties. Neither has ever had a female party leader, though both have had a female deputy leader – Nora Owen (Fine Gael) and Mary O’Rourke, Mary Coughlan and Mary Hanafin (Fianna Fáil). Given that personalism and localism are so ingrained in Irish political culture, the route to senior political office often starts at the local level. However, at the recent local elections in May, an election conducted without a gender quota obligation, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael registered the lowest proportions of women candidates, selecting just 21.2 per cent and 29 per cent respectively. This is regressive as both parties met the 30 per cent gender quota for the 2016 general election. It is also disappointing given that local government is a significant springboard for politicians wishing to run and get elected in Dáil elections. Some 83 per cent of the 35 female TDs elected to Dáil Éireann in 2016 were councillors at some stage in their political careers. As the legislature is the recruitment pool for cabinet, if women are absent from this layer of politics, they will not proceed to ministerial office. Given that cabinet experience is often (though not always) a feature of the apprenticeship of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil party leaders, if women have no or limited experience of ministerial office, their elevation to leadership of these parties becomes more difficult, lowering the chances of a woman occupying the office of An Taoiseach.
However, party fragmentation and voter volatility means there are few remaining certainties in Irish politics, and while the next election is close, it is still far enough away for many twists and turns between now and polling day. Who is to say that we won’t see a coalition government formed, with a female compromise leader emerging, a pathway to the Office of An Taoiseach previously travelled by John A Costello during the inter-party governments of the 1940s and 1950s? Currently, Dr Adrian Kavanagh of Maynooth University estimates that some 32 per cent of declared candidates for the next general election are women and 10 per cent of all candidates are aged between 21 and 35.
Whatever happens, analysts will be watching this election carefully to see if demographic trends evidenced elsewhere in relation to female leadership and young politicians are replicated in Ireland.
Dr Fiona Buckley is a lecturer in the Department of Government and Politics in University College Cork.