THIS Saturday February 8, a total of 528 candidates will contest the 2020 general election — 366 men (69.3%) and 162 women (30.7%). This is the highest proportion of women to ever contest a general election in Ireland.
More than a century after women gained the right to stand in national elections, the 2020 general election marks the first time they will contest in every constituency, and the first general election all the electorate will have an opportunity to vote for a woman to Dáil Éireann. It’s an indicator of the slow pace of change in Irish political culture that is has taken until 2020 for this to happen.
So why has it taken so long? A combination of historical, socio-cultural, institutional and individual level effects account for the supply and demand of women candidates at election time.
Supply-side factors refer to those resources, including time, money and experience, that shape a person’s interest, motivation, and ambition to enable them to run for political office. Demand-side factors include party culture and ideology as well as party selectors’ attitudes and preferences about what makes an ideal candidate.
Various reports point to a gendered division of labour in Irish society. According to a 2017 CSO report, 445,500 women in Ireland were looking after home/family in comparison to 9,200 men. A recent Oxfam report found that women accumulate 38 million hours of unpaid care work every single week, valued at €24bn to the Irish economy.
This bias towards traditional gender roles contributes to a 23% gender gap in employment rates between women and men after the birth of a child, a gap referred to as a ‘motherhood penalty’ by a 2017 OECD report. Related to this is the gender pay gap, which hovers around 14%.
Taken together, these reports highlight unequal access to time and money among women and men in Ireland, essential resources if one is to build a political career and run for political office.
Women’s candidacy in the 11 general elections between 1977 and 2011 averaged just 14%. However, during this time, women’s party membership rates were increasing, averaging 30% in 2011.
These figures would suggest that parties were overlooking women when it came to selecting candidates for general elections.
Political parties are referred to as gate-keepers and research shows that candidate selection processes can be guided by what the National Women’s Council of Ireland highlights as “conscious and unconscious forms of gender bias embedded in ideas about what makes the ideal candidate and these have historically privileged stereotypically male traits”.
However, the adoption of legislative gender quotas has seen a marked improvement on the low levels of female candidacy associated with previous general elections. The gender quota law incentivises political parties to select at least 30% female candidates and at least 30% male candidates or else surrender 50% of a state subsidy they receive to run their operations.
Since the implementation of this law in 2016, women’s candidacy at general elections has increased by 90%.
Reviewing the gender profile of candidates for the 2020 general election reveals a number of trends. Newer political parties and those of a leftist hue tend to select women candidates in higher proportions than parties on the centre-right and more long-term in existence.
One political party, Social Democrats, has selected a majority of women candidates (55%). Other gender balanced tickets include Solidarity-People Before Profit (43%) and the Green Party (41%). Most other parties are running a critical mass of women candidates ranging from 30 to 35%.
While the gender quota law does not apply to independents, since its introduction, the proportion of women running as independents has increased from 9.6% in 2011 to 19.2% in this election.
It may be the case that the advent of gender quotas has resulted in the political system being viewed as more welcoming of women, causing a diffusion effect beyond partisan boundaries, mobilising non-party women to also put themselves forward for election.
Much has been made of the fact that there is a woman running in all constituencies but Women for Election point out that “it’s shocking that there are more men named Seán than women on the ticket in Cork East”.
While Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael register the highest numbers of women candidates, their proportion of women candidates is lower than many other parties, and they are still fielding all-male tickets in a significant number of constituencies. They won’t be the only parties to do so, but given they are the largest parties in terms of overall candidacy numbers, it would have been expected that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would have selected women to contest in more constituencies.
In terms of the geographical spread of candidates, Dr Adrian Kavanagh of Maynooth University finds that women account for nearly 36% of candidates in the Dublin region compared to 30.7% in the rest of Leinster, 27.8% in Connacht-Ulster and 27.3% in Munster.
It would seem that proximity to Dublin, the seat of the national parliament, is a consideration for women when deciding to run.
For now, the often heated debate surrounding gender quotas in the lead-up to their first roll-out at the 2016 general elections seems to have dissipated.
Only a handful of gender directives were issued in the lead up to the 2020 general election. It would seem that gender quotas are impacting party culture whereby the presence of women on the party ticket is an expectation rather than an exception, and women’s inclusion is becoming normalised and naturalised.
However, the number of women contesting this election remains unchanged from 2016.
Given that the gender quota threshold is due to rise to 40% from 2023 onwards, most political parties must do more to promote women.
In 2016, women’s candidacy almost doubled, which resulted in a 40% increase in the number of women TDs elected, increasing from 25 in 2011 to 35 in 2016.
Pundits are predicting more modest increases in the number of women elected in 2020.
The international experience shows that it takes at least three electoral cycles before the full impact of gender quotas are realised, so patience and perseverance with the quota provision is required.
However, considering it took 19 years for the number of women TDs to increase from 20 in 1992 to 25 in 2011, an increase of five women TDs in one electoral cycle in 2020 would mark significant progress.
All will be revealed in the days following February 8.
WHAT FEMALE CANDIDATES ARE RUNNING IN CORK?
Cork East (of the 13 candidates, one is female)
* Mary Linehan Foley (Ind)
Cork South West (of the 12 candidates, five are female)
* Holly Cairns (SD)
* Karen Coakley (FG)
* Bernadette Connolly (GP)
* Margaret Murphy O'Mahony (FF)
* Mairead Ruane (AON)
Cork South Central (of the 14 candidates, four are female)
* Lorna Bogue (GP)
* Anna Daly (AON)
* Ciara Kennedy (Labour)
* Patricia O'Dwyer (SD)
Cork North West (of the nine candidates three are female)
* Colette Finn (GP)
* Becky Kealy (AON)
* Tara Nic Domhnaill (IFP)
Cork North Central (of the 18 candidates, three are women)
* Sinead Halpin (SD)
* Sandra Murphy (FF)
* Lorraine O'Neill (FG)