NAGY KrisztinaWomen in Leadership North and South
by Krisztina NAGY for Northern Ireland Foundation
6 July 2015

The Institute for Irish-British Studies (IBIS) at University College Dublin hosted a conference, “Women in Leadership North and South”, which examined roles in political and public life.

After a welcome by Professor David Farrell (Director, IBIS), the Minister for Justice and Equality, Ms Frances Fitzgerald TD, gave a keynote address. The Minister talked about the unprecedented global challenges due to migration, giving Syria as an example. She expressed the recent hard times of the Mediterranean and Tunisia. According to her, it is important that everybody has a voice. She argued that it is no question that human conditions have to be developed globally and we need to continue to examine the barriers of this globally. In terms of women’s representations in politics, the Minister suggested that we must not stop at 30%, but must increase to 60%.

Professor Yvonne Galligan (Professor of Comparative Politics in the School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy, Queens University Belfast) started her presentation with the definition of critical mass: it means that at least 30% should represent an underrepresented group in order to make a visible impact. This is crucial for democratic representativeness and democratic accountability. Prof. Galligan argued that although electoral law does not hinder the selection of female candidates, in practice the result favours male candidates, and that this is extremely important to change. She also stated that in Northern Ireland the proportion of female local councillors was 12.2% in 1993, which grew to 25% in 2014, but is still below the UK average of 32%.

Senator Ivana Bacik (Reid Professor of Criminal Law at Trinity College Dublin and barrister) said the percentage of women TDs (national parliament) in Ireland never exceeded 16%, having now 27/166 seats. She explained that while in 1990, Ireland had the 37th position in the world’s classification of women’s representation in legislative assemblies, today the country is about 90th. Prof. Bacik argued that the reasons for increasing women’s political representation includes a more representative democracy, public support, increased choice for votes and meeting international obligations. She explained the “5c’s” of hindrances to women for being more involved in politics: (1) children; (2) cash); (3) confidence; (4) culture; and (5) candidate selection procedures. Prof. Bacik suggested some initiatives as possible solutions: awareness raising campaigns (e.g. Ireland 1999); positive actions, including mandatory outcome measures, voluntary targets and statutory opportunity measures; and examining a case study of the Belgian Smet-Tobback Law (1994).

Dr Fiona Buckley (Lecturer in the Department of Government at University College Cork, where she teaches and researches in the areas of Irish politics and gender politics) also showed graphs about the percentage of women’s representation. She highlighted the Independent/Other category, where the proportion of female candidates increased from 11.9% to 31.4%. She quoted Viviane Reding, the European Union’s justice commissioner, “I don’t like quotas, but I like what quotas do!” Dr Buckley argued that quotas have a positive impact on the number of women running for elections.

Professor Joan Ballantine (Professor of Accounting at Ulster University Business School) argued that in Northern Ireland women are underrepresented. She introduced a research project that she contributed to: An Investigation of Gender Equality Issues at Executive Level in the Northern Ireland Public Sector. She said that in Northern Ireland two-thirds of the workforce is constituted by women, but only 30% of them is at executive level. The only exception from this is the area of human resources.

One woman from the audience asked why not to talk about male overrepresentation instead of female underrepresentation. She suggested that we need to reframe this issue in order to change the discourse about the topic.

Suzanne Collins (Director of Operations and Campaigns for Women for Election) emphasised the need to demystify access for women into politics. As a representative of Women for Election, she introduced their programmes: INSPIRE, EQUIP and INFORM. Throughout the three programmes, mentorees can expect — among other things — mentoring and coaching, empowerment, master classes in problem areas, access to research and media opportunities.

Grainne McVeigh (Director of Life Sciences Electronics and Consumer Products at Invest NI) explained Women’s Inspiration Network is not an NGO nor a foundation, but a group of women trying to make a difference.  She gave a very practical speech about their mission and goals: to support women in leading positions and getting them into leading positions. Their aims are to get women in boardrooms and in the media, to engage young women leaders and serve as role models.

Politicians Paula Bradley, Caitriona Ruane, Averil Power, Kathryn Reilly and Mary Mitchell-O’Connor were mainly discussing the topic of quotas — whether they agree with them or not — and they also gave an insight into the world of female politicians, which they described as tough, sometimes lonely and boring, as they are often were the only women.

Mary Mitchell-O’Connor (was elected to Dail Eireann on her first attempt in the 2011 General Election) explained that for a woman it is always hard to prove her legitimacy as a politician, since men and also the media tend to only focus on their appearance and their female nature, rather than their valuable ideas and contribution to politics. She added that her situation is twice as hard since she is not only a woman, but the youngest as well.

One of the members of the audience argued that it would reinforce the situation of female politicians if they attended together similar events to the current one, showing that their womanhood can be a strong link between them and this could have a positive effect on the entire political attitude.

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