The Irish coalition government has proposed a law that would make it mandatory for all parties to have at least 30 percent women candidates in general elections, but not in local ones. Within seven years of enactment that quota would increase to 40 percent. The political scene in Ireland has always been largely male so a push by the government could be precisely what changes this reality. Including local elections in this legislation could have a potentially more significant effect on the status of women in Irish politics. Employing quota systems in order to rectify problems of under-representation is something I have touched on before in my writing, noting that although they may be unpopular with some people, they can be an effective tool in achieving equality.
Ireland has had two female presidents but the number of women in the decision-making lower house of Parliament stands at only 15 percent and has not been rising significantly to keep pace with Europe Union wide trends. It is not a qualification problem, since 53 percent of Irish women ages 25-34 possess a college degree, a notable higher percentage than men in that age group, but the structure of politics as a traditional “boys’ club” remains, where women simply do not feel welcome. The New York Times reports that all parties have voiced support for the measure with many women in Irish politics saying that women thinking of pursuing a political career should firmly push on.
Having representation in positions of power has the potential to put issues that still often fall under women’s responsibilities like child care, at the center, improving all women’s professional prospects. While men and women in politics may support the same agenda regarding women’s issues, women politicians are more often involved with championing legislation that benefits women across society. Various studies have shown that women in positions of power serve as excellent role models for other women and girls, as well as, change stereotypical notions about gender roles.
Kathleen Lynch, deputy minister for the Departments of Health and Justice and Equality, noted that various women interested in political office seemed uncomfortable with quotas but that the system needs a shake-up since there is no other reason why women are not adequately represented. She also pointed out that currently there is no other path that is likely to remedy the situation. The New York Times quotes Ms Lynch: “It’s not that people don’t accept that we have talented women,” she added, “it’s just that making them welcome in the political sphere in terms of party politics is very important. Very important.” Irish women are qualified and ready to ascend the ladder of political power but many may be deterred by the structure, which assumes men’s traditional roles as leaders and breadwinners, who don’t tend daily family responsibilities, to be the standard.
Centuries of assumptions and flawed reasoning regarding gender, race, sexual orientation and other ways of marginalizing people, as well as, patterns of behavior don’t get automatically erased when modern laws and conventions are implemented. The presence of equal access laws may give the impression that the playing field is level but in practice that is often not the case. When women who strive to gain access to positions of power and prestige are held back by traditional, unyielding systems that did not figure anyone but a traditional male into the equation, society as a whole loses. Obstacles to women’s success in this case arise not from their inability to do the job, as a large proportion are already invested in leading change in their communities,
but from a structure of double standards. It is these women, who in increasing numbers could start addressing the flaws in the system that hurt women specifically, and work on creating a real equal access playing field, where quotas are ultimately no longer necessary. In the end Ireland faces a choice between a male-dominated status quo, with painfully slow steps to increase women’s representation, and a process that makes a genuine effort for more women to fully participate in their nation’s politics.