Cork TD: We must identify barriers to women in politics and remove them

If we are serious about wanting to increase female participation in politics, we need to identify the barriers in place and work to remove them, says Holly Cairns, Social Democrats TD, Cork South West
Cork TD: We must identify barriers to women in politics and remove them

"I can still remember how shocked I was to hear that female councillors had to apply for sick leave to take time off after giving birth," so said Deputy Holly Cairns, TD.

IF we want to increase the number of women in politics then we must introduce maternity leave for councillors on local authorities as an important first step.

There is a glaringly obvious gender balance problem in Irish politics. You only have to look at the composition of Cork’s representatives in the Dáil to see that. There are 18 TDs representing the people of Cork in Dáil Éireann. 17 of them are men. I am the only woman.

This is an extreme example, but it is by no means an outlier. My Social Democrats colleague, Cllr. Clare Claffey, was elected to Offaly County Council in 2019. 18 of her colleagues are men. She is the sole female councillor.

Women make up less than a quarter of the TDs in the Dáil and less than a quarter of the councillors on local authorities across the country.

Why, when we make up more than half the population, are women so underrepresented in our local and national governments?

I believe that if we are serious about wanting to increase female participation in politics, we need to identify the barriers in place and work to remove them.

Social Democrat TD Holly Cairns. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Social Democrat TD Holly Cairns. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

One very obvious barrier is the lack of any formal provisions for public representatives to take maternity, paternal or adoptive leave.

This was first brought to my attention when I was elected to Cork County Council in 2019. I can still remember how shocked I was to hear that female councillors had to apply for sick leave to take time off after giving birth.

This issue came to public attention earlier this year when Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee, became the first Cabinet Minister to give birth while in office and the first to take maternity leave. The Minister described her leave arrangements as ‘a sticking plaster’ until a more permanent solution can be found.

Earlier this year the Association of Irish Local Government identified the lack of specified maternity leave for local authority elected members as a “major barrier” to attracting and retaining female councillors.

Following the birth of her first child, Green Party councillor Clare O’Byrne resigned her South Dublin County Council seat in March.

“With the arrival of my firstborn, I have come to realise the impossibility of balancing my role as a new mother with that of a councillor,” O’Byrne said in a statement at the time.

“The unavailability of maternity leave for elected representatives is a serious obstacle that prevents women from running for and remaining in office.

“Things need to change, not only for my daughter or the next generation of women in politics, but this generation.”

Just 24 per cent of councillors around the country are women. If we ever want to substantially increase this proportion, then we must make changes to make a career in politics a more attractive prospect for women. The bare minimum required, in this regard, is maternity leave.

This month I launched a Bill that would extend maternity, adoptive and paternal leave to councillors. It would bring some long overdue reform to local politics and try to ensure that women, and men, are not deterred from a career in local politics because of the constraints it puts on family and personal life.

Many political careers start in local politics. The lack of maternity leave for councillors acts as a limiting factor for women and a barrier to their participation in public life.

It also denies the country the representation of strong female political candidates, many of whom feel unable to progress a career in politics because of structural barriers that are placed in their way.

At the moment female councillors must ask their fellow councillors to pass a resolution in order to avail of leave when they give birth.

In 2021, it is bizarre that a reformed system of maternity leave, and other family leave, is not yet available to councillors.

My Bill would ensure that leave is an entitlement – which does not require a resolution to be passed.

Every political party claims to want more women in Irish public life, but no government party has yet acted decisively to make maternity leave a reality.

It is time to stop playing lip service to gender equality and act. I hope the government will support this Bill.

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