Well done to the enlightened electorate of Ireland. We have now managed to elect a historic 25 women to our 31st Dáil, a higher number than ever before in the history of the state. This has resulted in a mere 85% of our elected representatives being men and a massive increase of 1 percentage point in female parliamentary representation. I am seething with sarcasm as I type.
Can we glibly blame the voters, half of whom are of course female, for this imbalance? It would seem not. Detailed analysis of the success rates of male and female candidates undertaken by the academic Claire McGing demonstrates that each is equally palatable to voters and that the problem lies with the main political parties who fail to reflect gender balance in their candidate selection. This distortion now seems to have been compounded by the appointment of so few women to cabinet posts and the apparent passing over of Labour Finance spokesman and vocal opponent of the disastrous bank guarantee, Joan Burton. Susan McKay of the NWCI deals with this in her hard hitting Irish Times article here.
The imbalance in our Parliament merely highlights the issue but it certainly doesn’t end there. This chronic under-representation pervades Irish society and is proving very resistant to change. One approach adopted in both Australia and Canada has been the appointment of a Minister for The Status of Women. In Australia, a society often perceived as extremely macho, the position was created as far back as 1983 and the current incumbent is Kate Ellis. In Canada this ministry is held by Rona Ambrose and has existed since as early as 1971.
So what exactly does this Ministry hope to achieve in each case? What programmes and actions are undertaken by these elected representatives in their efforts to improve the lot of women in each jurisdiction and consequently enhance society by making it more equitable and balanced? Is this something we should look at doing here in Ireland and are there lessons to be learnt and best practises to be implemented here based on the Canadian and Australian experience?
The Australian Model Is Worth Examining
The Australian model seems appropriate to the situation pertaining in Ireland and is one that would tackle the issues that women face here every day. The Australian Government Office for Women is part of the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.
The three priority areas for OfW are:
reducing violence against women
Increasing women’s economic security
Ensuring women’s equal place in society
OfW consults with women from a wide range of non-Government organisations to address these priorities and deliver better outcomes for women.
The role of the OfW is to:
- influence policy, Cabinet and Budget decision-making to ensure women’s interests are considered
- provide high level advice to the Minister for the Status of Women
- administer programs, including most significantly programs to combat domestic violence and sexual assault
- advise on legislative issues relating to women
- provide the principal focus on consultation between the women’s sector and Government
- represent Government at national and international forums on women’s issues, such as the United Nations
The appointment of Francis Fitzgerald as Minister for Children is certainly to be welcomed. Children are vulnerable in society and their interests need to be protected. However, it seems to me that women are vulnerable too and that until balance is achieved specific attention must be paid to our position in society. Kathleen Lynch has a general equality brief as part of her wide Junior Ministry for Disability, Equality and Mental Health. Does this go far enough? Should we all actively lobby for the creation of a full Ministry for the Status of Women in Ireland?