Mind the Gap

Arguments against gender quotas often revolve around the idea that quotas are undemocratic and discriminatory; the arguer in such instances seemingly failing to realise that our democracy already is undemocratic and discriminatory. Quotas are simply an attempt to right the (undemocratic, discriminatory) skew caused by the five Cs: Culture, Confidence, Cash, Childcare and Candidate selection, writes Anne O'Brian.

As part of the democratic-deficit recognised during the crisis, the depressing statistics on women’s participation in Irish parliamentary politics have been much discussed of late. In short, since the foundation of the state, an average of 5% of TDs and a maximum at any given time of 15% of TDs have been female. In the last election only 86 of the 566 candidates were women, with a grand total of 25 elected, putting at 76 on the international rankings for women in parliament. At this rate of ‘progress’, as the 50:50 campaign observes, it will take a mere 370 years for an equal gender balance to be achieved.

By way of speeding up this change our new Government has proposed a 30% gender quota for candidates in general elections, with parties that fail to meet the quota losing 50 per cent of State funding. These measures are often misunderstood, not just because Phil Hogan clarified that ‘a political party will have to have at least 30% women candidates and 30% male candidates at the next general election’ which, as John Burns in the Sunday Times points out, leaves us confused as to what the remaining 40% of candidates are meant to be. More generally, the objections made to the quota system are that it just delivers ‘token’ women, and is fundamentally undemocratic, discriminating against men. Within these arguments little attention is paid to the fact that quotas merely serve to offer a greater diversity of candidates rather than to limit the electorate’s choice in any way, as ultimately the decision as to who to elect remains with the voter. Nonetheless, quotas are often opposed, and even by women in parliament; a further glorious achievement of the last Dáil is the fact that a majority of women representatives opposed a quota system for candidate selection.

The assumption that the new government is getting around to addressing the issue is accurate only in part. A closer examination of the problem indicates that it is not just a question of candidate selection. Five structural barriers exist to prevent women participating in politics. A report from the Oireachtas sub committee on Women and Politics in 2009 reflects similar international research on the subject, which reveals that the main obstacles to women’s entry to politics are the five C’s: Candidate selection - the tendency to go with ‘proven’ male candidates; Childcare - women still have a disproportionate share of this work (three times as much as men according to the 2009 NWCI report, Who Cares?): Cash - women in Ireland have two-thirds of the income of men according to the CSO; Culture - which accepts women’s absence and male dominance as a given and where prevailing practices and images of politics are predominantly masculine; and Confidence - whereby women feel unable to break into the male networks and masculine practices of much of our politics and so therefore don’t put themselves forward as candidates. To dismantle all five barriers calls for a multifaceted approach that goes far beyond simply introducing candidate quotas.

To tackle the latter two barriers in particular, culture and confidence, requires a seismic change in how politics is perceived by the public and so demands a fundamental shift in how politics is represented, particularly in the media. This in turn requires a shake up in how women in politics fare in the media. Unsurprisingly the media field is about as level as that inside parliament when it comes to proportional representation for women and the discriminatory practices they experience within the institutions.

For women politicians accessing airtime is simply more difficult than for male colleagues. In the news media generally men are more likely to be quoted as sources than women. A study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (2005) in the US examined 16,800 news stories, across 45 outlets during 20 randomly selected days over 9 months and found that more than three quarters of all stories contained male sources, while only a third of stories contained a single female source. This is not exclusively an American phenomenon: the 2010 Global Media Monitoring Project, conducted in 130 countries, found that only 24% of the people interviewed in mainstream news were female. Access to the media is gendered but it is also determined by an intricate combination of factors such as news conventions, media ownership patterns, positions in political party hierarchies and informal connections to journalist networks. For instance, practices of news production determine that political status guarantees coverage, and so ‘new’ women politicians are caught in a chicken and egg dilemma of low profiles and thus less coverage (excluding some initial interest in new faces).

Since the 1960s feminist media theorists have argued that it matters who owns and controls media production, and men continue to occupy 75% of the positions of power in the mass media. Similarly, women’s low status positions in political party hierarchies tend to lock them out as spokespersons or primary sources and this is further aggravated by informal networks between journalists and politicians, which also tend to be predominantly male. These structures all mitigate against regular access to media outlets for women politicians. The quality and nature of representation and access is as important as quantity. Even when represented, women politicians still face many sexist clichés. Commentary on appearance is still more likely to be applied to women politicians than men. The domestic status and arrangements of women are also more frequently named than those of their male equivalents. This means that women have the added task of struggling merely to be taken seriously as politicians, while also trying to communicate distinctive policy positions in a media context where politics is already dumbed-down, and where program formats demand that producers freeze frame issues rather than engage with subtle socio-political contexts. Cumulatively, these practices of misrepresenting and under-representing women reproduce the prevailing gender inequalities within political life.

It is important to continue to recognise that the democratic deficit that Irish society came to recognise in the aftermath of the boom was not just based on economic inequalities, but also on divisions of gender, and class. A 50:50 gender split in the Dáil won’t be achieved solely through the introduction of quotas. It requires a more fundamental challenge to the culture that underpins ‘politics as usual’ as well as devising mechanisms to promote women’s confidence in engaging with politics. In part this objective means generating fundamental institutional change in media depictions of women’s role in politics in order to eventually create a system that more accurately reflects the demographic profile of Ireland, as well as one that is simply more inclusive and more equal.


 Image top: Brandon Doran.