The Meritocracy Myth | Why we need more women in politics

The National Women’s Council of Ireland recently called for the introduction of gender quotas in Irish local elections due to the fact that only 21% of the country’s 949 local councillors are female. In this argument, they pointed out that if the current rate of increase continues, it will take 200 years to reach gender parity.

Research describes the reasons for women’s under-representation as the ‘5 Cs’: confidence, cash, candidate selection, culture and childcare.

Politics is still seen as ‘the old boy’s club’ with any woman already involved viewed as exceptions to the rules rather than the norm. This fosters a culture that favours men who are already known within their political party over women who might not be as visible.



According to research from the US, women are 50% less likely than men to consider running for election. When they do, women often need to be asked multiple times before they accept while men are asked only once. That’s if they need to be asked at all. Men are much more likely to put themselves forward for selection and so, it is time for women to channel the confidence of mediocre white men.

Winning a seat isn’t necessarily the problem, being nominated in the first place is. Gender quotas for general election candidate selection go some way to addressing these issues. In 2016 the outgoing Dáil had 27 female TDs. Following the election, this number increased to 35. 1 in 5 of our current TDs are women; 16 are incumbents while 19 are first time TDs. It might not sound like much, considering women make up half the population, but there are 10 more women sitting in the Dáil than there were following the 2011 general election.

It is difficult to deny the positive impact the gender quota legislation of 2012 had on bringing about this, admittedly still slow, change. Extending these quotas to local elections is another step in the right direction.

Opponents of gender quotas talk about how the right person for the job should be the one selected to run. It is not lost on the rest of us that the people they deem right for the job, always seem to be men. This is pretty insulting, when you think about it.

We do not live in a meritocracy. Male privilege has always played a role in how candidates are selected. That’s why the process creates a barrier for women. Quotas are for candidate selection only, so people still have to face the electorate regardless of their gender.

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Organisations, including the 50:50 Group and the National Women’s Council of Ireland lobby for increased female representation. Women for Election run a number of training programmes aimed at inspiring and equipping women for political life; covering everything from canvassing and campaign management to dealing the media.

That almost 40% of the female TDs elected for the first time in 2016 had attended Women for Election training, shows that these programmes offer women a clear campaign strategy.

Not all women have or are planning to have children, but political life places additional barriers in the way of those who do. According to the NWCI an average of one fifth of the day is spent, by women, engaged in caring and household work. This is three times as much as men do.

Senator Lorraine Clifford spoke recently about giving birth to her son while in office, shining a light on an aspect of being a politician and having a family that is more often than not ignored. Politicians are not entitled to statutory maternity leave of 26 weeks because they are not considered employees.

Senator Clifford was able to keep up with Seanad proceedings from home, but when it came to voting she had to be in the chamber. There is no procedure allowing for vote pairing arrangements.

Practical changes, like this, would give us a system that is welcoming and adaptable to the lives of women and takes into account their lived experience. The question is whether these changes will happen without an increase in the number of female politicians in the Oireachtas? Yet, without these changes the women who want to run may not be able to.

Following the recent referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment, focus has naturally shifted to capitalising on the power of that women-led movement and encouraging many of those women to run for political office.

However, it is not as simple as involvement with grassroots movements transferring directly into support or membership of political parties. Many feel like they can achieve more through direct action and outside traditional political structures.

The system needs to change, but it cannot change unless politicians are willing to change it. We know that women want change. We’ve seen it in action. Ask a woman you know to stand. Recommend women to political parties. Better yet, consider running yourself.


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