'We want to bring about real change for women in politics'

EMMA CONNOLLY catches up with members of Cork City Council’s Women’s Caucus to see how they are bringing about change for women in politics
'We want to bring about real change for women in politics'

Launching Cork City Council’s webinar “Women in local politics – Be the She Change” at Nano Nagle Place, Cork were Cllr. Mary Rose Desmond, Chair of Cork City Council’s Women’s Caucus; Lord Mayor of Cork Cllr. Colm Kelleher; Dr. Naomi Masheti, Programme Co-ordinator, Cork Migrant Centre; Caroline O’Driscoll, Deloitte Ireland, and Cllr. Colette Finn, Cork City Council. Picture: Michael O'Sullivan /OSM PHOTO

CORK City Council’s Women’s Caucus was set up last March to promote women in politics and enhance female participation in Local Government. It’s one of only a few such groups in the country.

In the most recent local elections of 2019, 24 women, out of a total of 82 candidates, ran in Cork city vying for one of the 31 places. Just six were successful, meaning just 19% of the current elected members on Cork City Council are women.

Here’s what members of the Caucus members think about the current status quo at City Hall, and what their plans are to bring about change …

Councillor Mary Rose Desmond in Douglas Village.
Councillor Mary Rose Desmond in Douglas Village.

Cllr Mary Rose Desmond (FF), Caucus chair

There’s a mystique surrounding the work we do as councillors, but the reality is that many women involved in the community, on the ground, are already doing a lot of what our job involves.

That’s the opinion of Caucus chair and FF Cllr Mary Rose Desmond, who feels it’s their duty as an organisation to encourage these women, and others, to put themselves forward for the job.

She stressed the Caucus was never going to be just a ‘box ticking’ exercise, but about doing something really formidable to bring about change.

So far they’ve commissioned UCC to conduct a significant piece of research to establish, among other things, why Cork women aren’t coming forward to run as councillors.

Personally, she feels that many women perceive politicians as being ‘in it for themselves’.

“Yes, politics can be a robust environment but that doesn’t mean it should exclude women,” she said.

At the moment, she said, there was a ‘skewed perception’ in City Hall.

“There has to be because of the numbers; there has to be a built in bias when there’s a section of the population not represented there,” she said.

And despite a lot of effort made in City Hall in terms of gender inclusion, she said she still notices being talked over at times at meetings.

“But, positively, it might be a male colleague who might point that out to whoever is doing it. That’s one of the differences between men and women — women don’t think they need to be louder just to be heard. Women will speak when they’ve something valid to say and not just for the sake of speaking.”

One saying that resonates with Mary Rose is: ‘If you see it, you can be it.’

“I can really see that with my 10-year-old niece and my niece who is in her 20s. The 10-year-old sees her aunt as this person in politics, and when I became Deputy Lord Mayor she only wanted to know why I wasn’t Lord Mayor. I can really see the differences in their attitudes.”

She is hopeful of changes happening, and is determined to make them happen.

“We have to keep pushing. It won’t ever ‘just happen’. I was never much for gender quotas, and I struggled with that concept, but without change it will be too slow and we’ll never reach that necessary critical mass.

“It takes effort and that’s what we’re all about in the Caucus. 

"It’s easy to let the status quo stand and seek re-election as individuals but we have to make sure we bring others along with us.”

Cllr. Fiona Kerins.
Cllr. Fiona Kerins.

Cllr Fiona Kerins (SF)

Cllr Fiona Kerins is mum to a 21-month-old baby girl. She’s worked in cancer services in CUH for 14 years, and when the time came, she cleared her desk and availed of the maternity leave on offer to her in that role. There was no such option available to her as a city councillor.

She remembers going into City Hall when her daughter was just seven weeks old: “A meeting was on and I said I’d pop in and it was a case of ‘welcome back’’ and, just like that, I was back.”

She pointed out that if she hadn’t attended a meeting due to her having just given birth and being a new mum, she would simply have been marked down as ‘absent’.

“For any member of the public looking at records, it would have seemed like I just hadn’t turned up to council meetings and that I hadn’t voted on issues, and that’s something that could go against you in an election,” she pointed out.

The situation would have continued unchecked if it hadn’t been for Justice Minister Helen McEntee, who was the first sitting cabinet member in the history of the State to take maternity leave. She was given six months of paid leave, which she described as a ‘sticking plaster’ for a situation in need of major change.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has acknowledged there was a need for permanent reform, to ensure full equality for all public representatives, adding that there was a need to introduce maternity and paternity leave for councillors, senators, TDs and ministers.

Fiona said: “Ideally, there would have been a ‘sub’ appointed in my place for me. When my daughter was born, it was pre-Covid, and I couldn’t even log on remotely to attend meetings.”

At this point, Fiona admits she feels it’s almost past the stage of talking about getting more women involved in politics, and it’s more about putting legislation in place.

“I remember attending a National Women’s Council of Ireland conference 20 years ago where we were talking about encouraging and promoting more women to get involved in politics. We knew at that stage what the barriers were, confidence and childcare among other things, and still today there has been little progress.

“Some of it comes down to encouragement but I think it essentially boils down to physical barriers, which is the same all across working life for women.”

More positively, in her own party, she said, there had been a noticeable increase in female membership over the last few years, which she attributed to leader Mary Lou McDonald.

Cllr Colette Finn.
Cllr Colette Finn.

Cllr Colette Finn (Green Party)

Men aren’t the problem, but when they’re the only people in the room, that’s the problem.

“It’s like an open pitch where the other team haven’t shown up, probably because they’ve nobody to mind the children,” said Cllr Colette Finn.

She’s speaking personally. She’s been active in politics since the 1990s, but as a single parent she said she couldn’t even contemplate running in an election until her daughter was self-sufficient, due to childcare.

“My daughter is 21 now, and I was elected in 2019,” she said.

Colette said Ireland joining the EU made a big difference, when we started mixing with the Nordic countries, who have equalities embedded in their systems.

“Previously, we were sandwiched between the U.K and the US who are awful in terms of equality unless you’re an affluent woman. This myth of meritocracy is embedded in both these countries.”

She describes City Hall as being a “boys’ club without the boys even knowing it”.

“The fact is that women do politics differently. We’re not into that combative, ‘mine is bigger than yours’ approach.

"We’re about problem-solving. Sure, we might have different ides, but we’re more willing to listen to others to find a solution. And that’s what I like about the Caucus, it’s that willingness to listen to each other.”

She said it was also about giving women the confidence to speak up about issues, rather than ‘going off to solve them for themselves’ and cited the introduction of free contraception introduced in the budget as an example of that.

“It is very disappointing that we are still having these conversations. The government signed up to the international treaty, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, in 1979. But that’s all they did – sign up and carried on regardless.

“If we’re all in favour of equality, why isn’t it the case? And if the system is based on merit, why are half the population not at the table?”

Cllr Lorna Bogue.
Cllr Lorna Bogue.

Cllr Lorna Bogue (Non-Party)

Cllr Lorna Bogue feels that Irish politics suffers from a lack of perspective – and not just a female perspective.

“We just see politicians from one particular group all the time – rarely from an ethnic minority, Travellers, someone with a disability or from a working class background.

“There was research carried out where kids were asked to draw their idea of a politician and they mainly drew a man in a suit.

“If you can’t see someone in a role, it’s difficult imagine it. So we need to be asking ourselves: who is not in the room and why not?”

Lorna is very positive about the Caucus and its potential to bring about constructive change. However, she says in the constraints of patriarchy that’s operated for centuries “you can only do what you can do in the space you’re in”. She adds: “We’re not going to solve sexism, but this is a way of bolstering each other. It’s also great to know other people have my back and can point out at a meeting something like ‘she said that a minute ago’.”

Her professional background is economics which is also plagued by gender inequalities:

“There’s a large gender imbalance in this academic field, as the public voice is usually male, which just isn’t right.”

One very practical Caucus project she highlighted is a period poverty project – where the group is working to have free period products available in public buildings operated by Cork City Council.

Politics, she says, is a rough game, and to have someone undermining you because of your gender makes it even harder.

“And I’m in a relatively privileged position – if I was another race or ethnicity or had a disability, it would be even worse, and we need to be aware of that all the time.”

Launching Cork City Council's upcoming webinar 'Women in local politics -“ Be the She Change' at Nano Nagle Place, Cork were Cllr. Mary Rose Desmond, Chair of Cork City Council's Women's Caucus; Lord Mayor of Cork Cllr. Colm Kelleher; Dr. Naomi Masheti, Programme Co-ordinator, Cork Migrant Centre; Caroline O'Driscoll, Deloitte Ireland; Cllr. Colette Finn, Cork City Council, and Cllr. Deirdre Forde, Cork City Council. The webinar, aimed at encouraging more women into politics, will take place on November 17 on www.corkcity.ie and features high profile line up of guest speakers. Picture: Michael O'Sullivan /OSM PHOTO
Launching Cork City Council's upcoming webinar 'Women in local politics -“ Be the She Change' at Nano Nagle Place, Cork were Cllr. Mary Rose Desmond, Chair of Cork City Council's Women's Caucus; Lord Mayor of Cork Cllr. Colm Kelleher; Dr. Naomi Masheti, Programme Co-ordinator, Cork Migrant Centre; Caroline O'Driscoll, Deloitte Ireland; Cllr. Colette Finn, Cork City Council, and Cllr. Deirdre Forde, Cork City Council. The webinar, aimed at encouraging more women into politics, will take place on November 17 on www.corkcity.ie and features high profile line up of guest speakers. Picture: Michael O'Sullivan /OSM PHOTO

TODAY’S CONFERENCE

Ireland’s ambassador to the United Nations (UN), the first woman to head up the Scouts in this country, and the first Traveller woman to sit in the Oireachtas, are just some of the trailblazers who will speak at a webinar today, aimed at encouraging more women into politics, organised by Cork City Council in conjunction with its Women’s Caucus, and supported by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage.

Titled ‘Women in local politics – Be the She Change’, the keynote address will be given by Geraldine Byrne Nason, the country’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, who drew global acclaim for her passionate speech on women’s rights in Afghanistan at the time of the U.S exit from the country.

Joining her today also will be Jill Pitcher Farrell, the first female Chief Scout, Senator Eileen Flynn, the first Traveller woman to serve in the Oireachtas, and Cllr Uruemu Adejinmi, the first African woman to be elected Mayor in Ireland.

A panel discussion with the Caucus’s Chair, Cllr Mary Rose Desmond, Cork City Council Chief Executive, Ann Doherty, and former Lord Mayor of Cork, Catherine Clancy, will be moderated by Dr Theresa Reidy, of the Department of Government & Politics at UCC.

Cllr John Sheehan will also discuss the everyday impact of period poverty with a student from St. Angela’s College, Cork city, who has taken part in the Young Social Innovators - YSI Ireland project.

Meanwhile, his Cork City Council colleague, Cllr Garrett Kelleher will take part in the second panel discussion moderated by Senator Flynn.

Caroline O’Driscoll, partner at Deloitte Ireland and co-founder of iWish, the enormously successfully programme aimed at encouraging young girls into STEM careers, will conclude the webinar.

The webinar will be interpreted by two Irish Sign Language interpreters.

It was due to take place today, Wednesday November 17, from 12pm to 1.30pm, hosted on www.corkcity.ie

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