Making way for women to participate equally in politics

Women for Election are carrying out research, in association with academics from UCC and TCD, writes COLETTE SHERIDAN
Making way for women to participate equally in politics

Cork's only female TD, Social Democrat TD Holly Cairns. Picture: Damien Storan.

“AS well as being a root cause of gender inequality, the absence of women from political life “is a key driver of male violence against women,” says Catriona Gleeson, CEO of Women for Election.

“Having women participating equally at the political table is critical in terms of changing the negative attitudes in society towards women in public life.

“We want to address and prevent male violence against women. We also want to make sure that we’re making way for women to participate equally in politics.”

To this end, Women For Election is carrying out a survey in conjunction with Dr Fiona Buckley from UCC and Dr Lisa Keenan of Trinity College Dublin. The results will probably be published in October. The aim of the online survey is to gather information from women in Ireland about their attitudes towards running for political office and their experience of politics. The survey will help women to understand the factors that might enable or inhibit them from running for office.

Women for Election is ten years old this year. What has it achieved in that time?

“As an organisation, we have seen a significant number of women who’ve come through our training programmes which are the core of what we do.

“We provide training to help support women to enter politics, which has always had a very traditional male network.”

Catriona says that the advocacy and training group has put thousands of women through its hands, “particularly in our campaign schools and in our master classes and our mentoring programmes. Our mentoring has been mainly peer-to-peer.

“We’re developing that more this year to include politicians mentoring political aspirants. This year, we’re introducing a subsidised mentoring programme that will be accessed based on people’s means.”

CEO of Women for Election, Catriona Gleeson.
CEO of Women for Election, Catriona Gleeson.

While Women for Election highlights the “blockages that stop women from going into politics, we are also solutions-focused. The research we’re doing at the moment is a review of the barriers to women’s participation in politics. We’re taking a multi-tiered approach, developing a score card in terms of our performance.”

The barriers that prevent women from entering politics are known as the five C’s, as identified by Ivana Bacik when she was a senator, and Dr Yvonne Galligan. They are ‘cash, candidate selection, confidence barrier, culture (both in and outside politics) and childcare.

“We are reviewing the progress that has been made in each of these barriers and we’re potentially identifying other barriers.

“Our survey is about finding out from women who have an interest in some level in politics why they haven’t put themselves forward.

“We want to see the enabling and disabling factors for entering politics. We want to make politics possible for everyone, to open it up to women who are active in their communities, helping to make Ireland a great place. These women are not at the decision-making tables where all the power is in our current political landscape.”

While there are some women in politics, it’s a paltry proportion. Some 77% of seats in the Dáil are occupied by men.

“That is very depressing. Our job is to help change that. Some progress has been made. When we set up in 2011, around 86% of Dáil seats were held by men. But we haven’t seen anything like the critical mass needed to change the culture of politics.”

Catriona also points out that the diversity of women in politics here is very limited. There has never been a Traveller woman elected to a local council or to the Dáil or Seanad. (Eileen Flynn was nominated by the Taoiseach for the senate but failed to get elected.) The first black woman elected to a council (Meath County Council) was Yemi Adenuga in 2019.

“Women for Election are working with Traveller organisations, particularly the National Traveller Women’s Forum, to run interventions specifically to encourage Traveller women to come forward for politics.”

Since the pandemic, most of the Women for Election programmes have been run online.

“They have been very successful. Last year, we had over 1,200 participants. Over 600 individual women attended at least one of our programmes.

“We run campaign schools. In our Inspire Campaign School, we were able to have women from Cork, Kerry and Donegal - right around Ireland in fact - in one room through online sessions. We’re very excited by the interest of the women and their commitment to getting involved and the effort they’re putting in, despite all the juggling.”

Women are “hungry for change.” The figures are not encouraging however.

“For the entire province of Munster, there are only four women from there in the Dáil. Cork has only one woman TD for the entire constituencies. Holly Cairns is one of only half a dozen women who have ever represented Cork in the Dáil.”

Catriona points out that in 1921, there were six women elected to the Dáil. Today there are 37 women in the Dáil. So that’s an increase of 31 in 100 years. That is very slow progress.”

By 2024,Women for Election wants 50% of candidates on the ballot paper to be women “so that the public will have a real choice.”

While politics in this country is not family-friendly, Catriona points out that one of the positives arising from the pandemic is that meetings are now run “more efficiently. They can be run on a hybrid basis or remotely so there are options in a lot of councils.”

As to male attitudes towards women in politics, Catriona says: “There ‘s always going to be the experience of some men being patronising. Hopefully, that will start to change.

“In Women for Election, we tend not to get too much negative interaction.”

It’s all to play for.

To participate in the Women for Election survey, email hello@womenforelection.ie to request the questionnaire.

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