Yes She Can

What’s driving the rise in Ireland’s women politicians?

Ireland’s new gender quota law stipulated that any party whose field of nominated candidates was not at least 30 percent female would lose half its public money for election campaigning. It seems to have worked: all parties nominated enough women to retain their full funding. leon neal / getty images
01 April, 2016

On 17 February, in an airy, white lecture theatre in Dublin City University, eight politicians—six men and two women—debated issues ranging from abortion rights to student loans. Each was vying for a seat in Ireland’s parliament, the Dáil Éireann, to represent Dublin’s North-West constituency. One of the two women candidates was Cathleen Carney Boud, the 37-year-old councillor of the city’s North-West ward—a working-class residential area. Boud, a first-time general election contender, took questions confidently and spoke in a measured tone. I met her after the debate to ask about her experience standing in this election. “Once you are in politics,” she said, “you forget about the gender thing.” But that can only happen, she added, “with the support of your party.”

Boud was one of 163 women running to be a Teachtaí Dála, or TD—a member of the Dáil—out of 551 total candidates in the election, which was held on 26 February. The number of women candidates had doubled since the previous election, in 2011, when 86 women ran. The primary reason for this rise was a new law that encouraged political parties to nominate female candidates. But though the law had helped, many believed that a fundamental problem persisted. “Both men and women,” Boud told me, “need to change the mindset about what it means for women to step forward into politics.”

Among the groups working to change this mindset was the non-profit Women for Election, which was set up five years ago to address gender inequality in Irish politics by supporting women running for political office. Boud, who honed her debate skills through her experience with the organisation, is one of many WFE alumni who stood for the general election. WFE even claimed it played a key role in the results, in which women won 35 races, taking the percentage of women TDs up from 15 to 22.

Ireland’s legislature has always been predominantly male. From the Dáil’s inception in 1919 until 2011, the legislative body saw 1,242 TDs. Of these, only 95—8 percent—were women. The results of the 2011 election, in which 25 of the Dáil’s 166 seats were filled by women, were an improvement, but Ireland still lagged far behind its neighbours. Over 22 percent of members of parliament in the United Kingdom were women, and the parliaments in the Nordic countries of Sweden, Finland and Norway were all about 40-percent female.

In 2012, Ireland made a radical attempt to catch up to these peers by passing gender quota legislation that tugged at the purse-strings of political parties, encouraging them to nominate more women candidates. In Ireland, political campaigns receive a considerable portion of their money from a national election fund, split among parties in proportion to the votes each received in the previous general election. According to the new gender quota law, though, any party that did not nominate a field of candidates that was at least 30-percent female would lose half its election money. The law seems to have worked: all parties nominated enough women to secure their full funding.

But opinion on the law is still divided. I spoke with Karolina Ó Beacháin Stefanczak, a former politician from Poland who is currently researching gender and political participation in pursuit of a PhD from Dublin City University. She warned against the assumption that more female candidates would necessarily result in more women TDs. Stefanczak even suspected that “two of the historically largest parties added some women to fulfil the quota criteria, but not to get them elected.”

Others were more positive. Boud told me that she supported the gender quota, calling it “the reason that parties are opening up to women candidates.” Michelle O’Donnell Keating, a founder of WFE and a former management consultant, also expressed support for the law. “It would be undemocratic for women to fund political parties through their tax and then not have the same opportunities within the political parties as men,” she told me. But while the law has encouraged gender equality in parties’ nomination processes, Keating said, she is mindful of the fact that it tackles only one of the “five C’s” that researchers have often cited as the barriers Irish women face in politics: candidate selection, confidence, cash, childcare and culture. The latter four are perhaps more difficult to tackle through legislation, but are areas that groups such as WFE can address.

Keating and her co-founder Niamh Gallagher, a policy analyst, started WFE in 2011, after securing funding from private donors and non-profits. Based in an upmarket neighbourhood in southern Dublin, WFE is a small operation, with only four core staff members. It is a non-partisan organisation, meaning it supports women politicians regardless of their party affiliations.

The main elements of WFE’s programming are its three seminars: a half-day one called “Inform,” a one-day one called “Inspire,” and a three-day residential one called “Equip.” These seminars, which are conducted in venues across Ireland, are designed for women who are politically involved, or are considering becoming so. According to Keating, the seminars focus on “developing very practical skills in communications, campaign strategy, media, resilience, and, most importantly, building a cross-party network of political women across Ireland.” Boud had participated in a WFE seminar. While there, she said, she heard invaluable tips on topics such as public speaking and time management. That advice, she said, was hugely helpful to her when she contested the 2014 city council elections—which she won, securing her position as a councillor.

WFE pairs its seminars with a nation-wide media campaign. Gallagher writes a weekly column on gender and politics for the popular newspaper the Irish Independent. The organisation also teamed up with Twitter’s Dublin office to run a campaign around the hashtag #electwomen, which, Keating told me, was used more than half a million times during the election. The organisation has received many media accolades and awards, including the 2015 “Social Entrepreneurs of the Year” award from IMAGE, a prominent magazine.

By 2014, Keating said, around 650 women had participated in a WFE seminar, and of them 190 had run for local or national elections, while 300 played key roles in campaigning. Keating claimed that at the local level, 50 percent of Ireland’s 194 female councillors “have come through a WFE training programme.” She argued that WFE’s campaigns “contributed substantially to the increase of women running in GE16.” But according to Gerard Howlin, a former advisor to Ireland’s prime minister, the new gender quota law was the primary force at play, and any other theory was “just hokum.”

Niamh Kirk, a journalist who reported on gender issues in the 2011 general election, told me she believed that another important factor in the increase of women was the slew of austerity measures imposed by the former ruling party, which had an adverse impact on things that disproportionately affect women, such as child care, women’s aid groups and domestic utilities costs—particularly water costs. “I think,” she said, “it is easier to get political when an anti-water charge protest is literally happening down the bottom of your road.”

Whatever has caused the increase in women political participants, the election results did see a rise in the number of successful women candidates. The tally of 35 new women TDs was a record in Irish history. Approximately 40 percent of the new women TDs, Keating claimed, have in some way obtained training or support from WFE.

Gallagher especially stressed the importance of WFE as a connector for women politicians across parties. “As we see our new Dáil forming,” she said, “we see many female politicians of many parties going into those doors—and they have already met one another this year, last year and the year before through Women for Election.”

Boud, however, will not be walking through those doors; she was not able to secure enough votes to earn a seat in the Dáil. But WFE may yet play a role in her future political endeavours. “I think it is hugely important,” she told me, “to have an organisation that engages with women and gives them encouragement.”