Women’s Representation in Parliament: Discussion.

The joint committee is continuing its series of meetings on the electoral system and the topic for discussion is that politics is still perceived primarily as a male profession. While women represent 50% of the population it is regrettable that only approximately 13% of the Members of the Dáil are women. In order that the Parliament can truly represent the views of the electorate from which it is drawn it should reflect the electorate in all its diversity. Today, the joint committee will consider the specific challenges which confront women in seeking election to political office and the openness of our electoral system to women candidates. It will also examine factors that would promote better representation of women.

I welcome Ms Fiona Buckley, lecturer in the department of government in University College Cork, Ms Susan McKay, director of the National Women's Council of Ireland and Senators Ivana Bacik and Lisa McDonald. Both Senators are members of the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights, which recently prepared a document on this matter. The joint committee is grateful to all of you for giving us your time. Your written submissions have been circulated to members.

Members of the committee have absolute privilege but that same privilege does not apply to witnesses appearing before the committee.

May I raise a technical point? Does privilege apply to the Senators when they are giving evidence as witnesses?

Privilege is confined to Members of the Oireachtas so it should apply to them.

You might ask them to research the matter and report to the committee.

We have three lawyers here but no constitutional lawyer.

It would cost the Chairman a great deal of money.

I am sure both Senators are well aware of parliamentary privilege. Both are also lawyers so they are doubly protected.

I propose that each delegate will make a presentation and that we will then have a question and answer session. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I invite Ms Fiona Buckley to make her presentation.

Ms Fiona Buckley

Thank you, Chairman, for your invitation to this important forum to discuss an important matter. I am a lecturer in the department of government in UCC and my research area is women in parliament and in executive leadership. I have researched women in cabinet positions in Ireland and throughout Europe. While the electoral system is not my precise research area I have much to say about it. I will speak today about research which has been done on the impact of electoral systems on women's representation. In Ireland, a key problem is that women are not put forward as candidates. I would like to expand the conversation beyond electoral systems.

Members of the committee have seen my written submission and I will refer to slides which illustrate it. The most recent research I have seen is a report by the European Commission for Democracy through Law, the Venice Commission. It notes that the under-representation of women in many European parliaments must be considered as problematic from a democratic and human rights perspective. This is something we must bear in mind. Populations tend to be 50% male and 50% female. In our State it is worrying that only 13.85% of the present Dáil are women, considering the balance in the population. We need to look at this as a problem. For too long we have accepted that politics in Ireland is a male domain. We need to move beyond accepting this as the norm and to look at how we can get more women into parliament. The Venice Commission also mentioned the strong relationship between electoral systems and the number of women in national parliaments.

On the next slide we consider the concept of representation. The terms "descriptive representation" and "substantive representation" are mentioned. Descriptive representation refers to the number of women in parliament. Substantive representation assesses how women, when elected, represent women and their interests. Many people argue that the relationship between descriptive and substantive representation is the critical mass concept. Women must reach a certain percentage of members of parliament before they can effect real influence. Figures for critical mass differ between 30% and 40%. In Beijing in 1995, the UN World Conference on Women recommended a 30% figure for critical mass. In 2001, the European Parliament suggested that the figure should be 40%. The Council of Europe, in its most recent report, suggests 35%. One method often proposed for achieving critical mass is the use of quotas. We will talk about that later and I know my fellow contributors will also touch upon it.

The number of women in parliaments worldwide is increasing. In the 1960s women held 4.9% of parliamentary seats. In 2008, the figure had risen to 18.6%. In European parliaments, the average figure for women members in 2009 is 24%. Ireland falls below the world and European average. In June 2009, the number of seats held by women in the Irish Parliament is 13.85%. We rank 24th of the 27 EU member states.

These figures are worrying. The number of women in Dáil Éireann has increased from a low of 4.8% in the 1980s to the present figure but the rate of increase is remarkably slow compared with the rapid increase in the number of women participating in other walks of life, such as industry and education.

Is Ms Buckley forgetting about the Seanad?

Ms Fiona Buckley

For this research I focused on lower houses of parliament because that was my remit. I can certainly, afterwards, if the Senator wishes——

The Seanad is always forgotten.

Ms Fiona Buckley

I suppose it is, but the advice I was given was to look at the electoral system. In Ireland that is concerned with the Lower House. However, I take Senator Mary White's point. If she wishes, I will be happy to discuss figures for upper houses and second parliamentary chambers.

Could I ask Ms Buckley to cultivate the habit of referring to the Dáil and Seanad?

That matter can be discussed later.

Ms Fiona Buckley

They are two separate houses in their method of election.

The number of women contesting Dáil elections, which is what I was asked to look at, is declining from a high of 96 in 1997 to 84 in 2002 and 82 in 2007. As well as looking at electoral systems, we must ask why women are not running for election and why they are not being put forward as candidates.

Why is it important to have women in decision making? There is much research to show that having women in politics makes women more connected to the democratic process, boosts their political interest, and their knowledge of and efficacy in politics. Those are very important reasons for having women involved in decision making. The research has shown that when women are in parliament they tend to argue on behalf of women and women's interests more adequately than in parliaments dominated by men. Thomas and Welch, and Epstein, Niemi and Powell advocate that female legislators are more inclined than their male counterparts to advance policy proposals on issues of concern to women. Hence it is important to have women in parliament.

With regard to the concept of electoral systems, there is the wide interpretation of electoral systems which looks at everything from voting rights, political rights, access to voting, ballot structure and all the rest. The narrow interpretation of electoral systems just considers how votes are translated into parliamentary seats, which is what I have tended to focus on today. As I am sure members are aware there are two main types of electoral systems the plurality-majoritarian type and the proportional representation types. District magnitude and party magnitude are important to note from the point of view of women's representation. District magnitude refers to SMDs, single-member districts, or MMDs, multi-member districts. The number of seats to be filled from each district or constituency determines the number of candidates a party might run for those seats. Party magnitude is the number of seats a party hopes to win and it determines the number of people it will run.

The traditional argument is that multi-member districts tend to benefit representation more than single-member districts because in multi-member districts parties may perceive that they will win more than one seat and will run more than one or two candidates. If there is a larger party magnitude, parties will run with the tried and tested politicians, who tend to be incumbents and also tend usually to be male. They will also be more inclined to run women. There are figures in this regard in the literature. Many people would say that districts of six or seven seats benefit women more than district sizes of fewer than five seats. District magnitude and party magnitude are important when considering electoral systems.

My next slide contains data from 24 established democracies compiled by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, IIDEA. This shows that women running for parliament in countries with PR-based systems have an advantage over women running in single-member districts or a majoritarian-type electoral system. The difference was slight up to the 1970s but since then one can see that women have achieved dramatic increases in their numbers elected under PR systems whereas there have only been modest gains within the majoritarian systems. Those increases probably relate to the numbers of women running. However, other mechanisms that have been introduced into proportional systems like quotas or reserved seating have had an impact.

We have already considered why PR systems are better for women. Higher district magnitudes dictate higher party magnitudes. Many people will argue that a PR system with closed party lists is the optimum system for the election of women. Within those closed lists there needs to be a quota or defined rules regarding ballot structure or placement on ballot. Usually people will say that the best form of closed list PR is one with a zipper system, which means that every second person on the list is a woman. It is also possible to have an open list. As members of the committee will know within an open list people have the ability to indicate their preferences so the positioning of women could be affected by that.

The findings on the influence of PR-STV on female representation in Ireland tend to be somewhat mixed. In 1987 Engstrom concluded that Ireland's relatively small district magnitude hindered female representation. There was a sense that with three, four and even five-seat constituencies, parties considered what they were realistically going to achieve. In a three-seat constituency a party would be likely to run only two candidates and, at a stretch, three candidates. The tendency for those parties was to stick with the incumbent — usually a male candidate — or what was perceived by many parties as the safe bet, the male candidate. Engstrom stated that the small district magnitude in those cases would have affected women's representation. However, Michael O'Kelly in 2000 found that women candidates in Irish elections have been very successful in three and four seat constituencies. I looked at some of the figures from the 2007 general election, which show mixed results including a number of women coming through in the three and four-seat constituencies.

If we wanted to promote the ideal electoral system to benefit the representation of women, the research indicates that we should have a form of PR closed-list zipper-style system with a district magnitude of seven and above. That would be fine, but would require altering the entire electoral system. However, can anything be done with the present system? There have been some suggestions to introduce reserved lists along with the PR-STV system as it stands. That would require nominating or identifying districts that are female-only districts. It would need to be debated and discussed as to how that would go down. I would imagine some male candidates would not like it if their constituency had been identified as the one with the all-female list at the next election. As a woman who feels sometimes the gender balance in Dáil Éireann is not a true reflection of the State, I believe it may be time for men to take the disadvantage there. Reserve lists can be used but it would be necessary to identify all female lists in some districts or identify one seat per constituency as a female seat and have the typical constituency list and all-female panel with voters voting on two lists. That is a suggestion that could, I suppose, be introduced in the present system.

The electoral system is one factor that has an impact on women's representation. However, we also need to get women to the point where their names are put on a ballot paper so that they can be selected by the electorate. What does the research tell us about female representation in Ireland? Is there bias against female candidates among the electorate? There are mixed results. The research from the late 1990s onwards suggests there is little or no bias against female candidates among the electorate. Early research from the 1980s, in 1987 and 1988, showed some evidence of bias against female candidates. That was probably symptomatic of the climate and culture of the time. However, it remains the case that politics is very much seen as a male profession. The issue of incumbency represents a significant challenge for women because the incumbent tends to be male and parties will generally run with a tried and tested individual. The tendency of political parties to act as gatekeepers to the political system also works against women.

Slide 13 lists the main issues that discourage women from standing in elections. Research points to party selection processes as a significant issue in this regard, with many female respondents referring to the clubby, male dominated, old boys network of politics. Not surprisingly, child care is a major issue for prospective female candidates. Cash is another issue, with women perhaps less likely than men to have access to the financial resources necessary to fund an electoral challenge. Lack of confidence is another issue cited by women, specifically lack of confidence in their ability to break into this male dominated area.

The question posed in the next slide is what can be done to rectify this. There has been much discussion of institutional changes in the form of quotas, which can be introduced either voluntarily at party level or nationally via the institution of legal quotas. If the latter are introduced, it is vital that associated legal sanctions are effective. For example, when a quota system was introduced in France whereby any party not fielding at least 50% female candidates would be liable for a fine, many parties favoured paying the fine rather than meeting the quota.

The slide includes statistics showing how important it is to encourage women's participation in local government. Female candidates in general elections are far more likely to succeed if they have previously served on a local authority. Mentoring and training programmes are also important means of encouraging greater participation by women. Having said that, the research from abroad indicates that gender quotas are the most effective method of encouraging women to enter politics. While there is an understandable reluctance on the part of many women to be seen as the token or quota candidate, the international evidence is indisputable in this regard.

I will now hand over to my colleague, Ms Susan McKay. We can discuss gender quotas further, including the relative merits of voluntary and legal approaches, during the question and answer session. I thank delegates for their time.

Ms Susan McKay

The National Women's Council of Ireland, NWCI, is grateful for the opportunity to discuss with the committee the critical issue of women's representation in the Oireachtas. We have become even more aware in recent months of the absence of women from key political decision-making platforms, which will inevitably have damaging consequences for women in the forthcoming budget. It need hardly be stated that women are significantly under-represented in the Oireachtas, making up just 13% of the membership of the Dáil and 22% of the Seanad. With all due respect, the gender balance on this committee leaves something to be desired. Perhaps members will address that deficiency in due course.

All Members of the Dáil and Seanad are entitled to attend meetings of the committee.

Ms Susan McKay

In that case there is another issue to be addressed outside this room.

All fighting must take place after the delegates have made their contributions.

Ms Susan McKay

The National Women's Council of Ireland has 170 member groups from a broad diversity of women's organisations throughout the State, including local women's community groups, rural women's groups, women in business networks, women with disabilities, women in trade unions and women in the arts. We are mná na hÉireann in all their glory.

It is little wonder that for many girls and women, a career in politics or public life is still seen as "not for us". The jobs for the boys mentality very much prevails in Ireland. Only 4% of chief executive officers in top Irish companies are women, and women are heavily over-represented among the lower ranks of most of the professions and in the Civil Service. To put our rates of female parliamentary participation in an international context, Ireland ranks 24th in the European Union and 59th out of 120 nations. In other words, our participation rates are considerably lower than the European, American and Asian average and on a par with the sub-Saharan African average of 13%.

This low rate of participation has had serious consequences for women. It has led to poorly developed policies on women's equality and a reliance on the European Union to provide protection and improvements for women in Ireland. It is worth recalling that one of this country's first initiatives after joining the Union was to seek a derogation from equal pay legislation. Reinforcement of the inequitable and stereotyped role of women as the primary carers in society is another consequence of the poor representation of women in political life. I invite members to look at our most recent publication, entitled Who Cares?, which challenges the myths surrounding gender and care. Included on the first page is the statistic that over the course of a week, women undertake 86% of child supervision. We are told on the next page that women are responsible for 82% of caring duties for adults. These are serious impediments to women's participation in public life.

The damage done to the national women's strategy during recent redistribution of funds among Departments is par for the course. Equality is simply not a priority in Irish politics but is invariably seen as something that will always wait. The National Women's Council of Ireland strenuously rejects that position. Even if we assume that we are moving towards equal representation in the Houses of the Oireachtas — as we will show presently, we cannot assume this — it will take 370 years to reach parity, but we are not willing to wait that long.

Since its establishment in 1973, the National Women's Council of Ireland has been concerned at the ongoing exclusion of women from key political decision-making structures at local, national and international levels. Despite an obvious improvement in the overall position of women in society in recent decades, participation in local and national government is extremely low by international standards. Disturbingly, despite statements indicating varying degrees of concern about this from all the main political parties, the most recent local and European elections showed a decrease in the numbers of women represented in local government and the European Parliament. This is a matter of considerable concern to us.

In recent years the NWCI has undertaken a range of projects and initiatives to highlight this situation and to encourage and support women to use their voices to bring about change. There is clearly no point in relying on men to do so. We have participated in joint initiatives with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the Put More Women in the Picture exhibition and our Irish Politics, Jobs for the Boys research. In addition, we have produced a women's manifesto calling for positive action, held members' meetings and International Women's Day events and provided training for women in leadership, policy and lobbying. We were most recently involved in the European Women's Lobby 50:50 campaign for the European elections.

The national women's strategy prioritises women and decision-making as a key inequality that persists for women in Irish society, and highlights the fact that all public decision-making institutions in Ireland remain male dominated. The Government target of a minimum representation of 40% of either gender on State boards and committees remains largely unrealised. The NWCI has proposed to the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Moloney, the establishment of a working group on women in decision-making under the national women's strategy. We have been asked to postpone work on this until next year, but we certainly intend to return to it.

At international level, Ireland's performance in regard to women's participation in political life has been criticised. In its concluding comments on Ireland's combined fourth and fifth periodic report, the review committee of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, CEDAW, states that it is "concerned at the significant under-representation of women in elected political structures, particularly in the Oireachtas." It goes on to state:

The committee encourages the state party to take sustained measures to increase the representation of women in elected bodies, including temporary special measures in accordance with Article 4, paragraph 1 of the convention and the committee's general recommendation 25 on temporary special measures. It recommends that research be carried out under the aegis of a parliamentary committee into the root causes of the lack of progress in this area.

It is very important that we examine the root causes; there is no point in merely looking at the consequences.

Action and intervention must be taken to redress this inequality. In that regard, the NWCI welcomes the review of this committee into the electoral system for the election of Members of Dáil Éireann and particularly it welcomes the specific attention given to the representation of women as part of that review. We are currently consulting our members and will make a substantive submission by the deadline of the end of November. It is essential to recognise that there are many factors which lead to women's under-representation at political level. The most important factor, as cited by the rapporteur of the Council of Europe's Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men is that we "still live in societies which are characterised by attitudes, customs and behaviours which disempower women in public life, discriminate against them and hold them hostage to prescribed role models and stereotypes according to which women are 'not suited' to decision-making and politics." Structural explanations reveal that women's participation in politics is dependent on factors such as the overall development of the country, an extended welfare state, the socio-economic status of women, the levels of female education or the proportion of women in employment. Cultural approaches refer to gender differences in political socialisation and adult gender roles and to the role of religion or cultural traditions.

Ms Buckley has gone into electoral systems in some detail. The Venice Commission report, which she mentioned, highlights the role strong women's movements and networks in individual states play in increasing the representation of women. It is clear from all the research and our own previous work that a quota system must be incorporated into our electoral process. Given women's profound under-representation, quotas should be viewed as compensation for existing obstacles to women's access to Parliament. They can help to overcome structural, cultural and political constraints.

I refer to an article Senator Bacik wrote in the Irish Examiner recently, in which she stated the cultural barrier is probably the most difficult to address. She said in the legal professions, the same culture persists and she referred, in particular, to women solicitors not being invited on crucial golf outings with major clients. We only have to look to yesterday’s Supreme Court decision to realise that the culture of boys clubs, which go to immense lengths to exclude women, is not only about the exceedingly boring game of golf but is a lot to do with the exclusion of women from the places where decisions are made and attitudes to important political issues are formed.

Besides the electoral system, the effective implementation of gender quotas is an institutional factor of paramount importance. Such quotas provide one of the most notable powers for women's parliamentary representation and specifying the minimum percentages of female candidates for elections will be hugely important in Ireland, where there is no alternative. They must be accompanied by family friendly and other measures that will make it possible for women to put themselves forward. I recommend that members read our Who Cares? document in that regard.

Compared with many structural and cultural obstacles to women's representation, the electoral system can be changed more easily, and quota rules can be adopted, if politically wanted. This review presents an opportunity to change the political norms and values and address this totally unacceptable inequality in Irish society. Democracy demands an equal representation of women and men in political life. This raises the question as to whether women would make a better job of running the country. The bar, as can be seen in our current state of economic crisis, is not set high.

Last night I met a Liberian educationalist, Dorothy Toomann, who works with women in a rural area devastated by the 14-year civil war in that country, which only ended in 2003. She is visiting Irish Aid and Trócaire officials who support her project. I met her when I visited west Africa in my role as a journalist earlier this year. The women with whom she works are impoverished and they do not have property or jobs. They make a living by selling a few vegetables at market or by gathering charcoal in the woods. They are suffering in the aftermath of being raped during the war and witnessing the slaughter of their families. In many cases they are raising several generations of one family. They have little going for them but they have hope, which is something many Irish women do not have in this regard, because the Liberian President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is addressing their needs. She has set up a Ministry of Gender and Development and allowed the association of women lawyers to draft laws on rape and on the rights of women to inherit property. When I interviewed her, she spoke about the need to empower women and sensitise men. Can members imagine such language in Irish politics? Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is an old woman and she is also a feminist. It makes a difference and that difference needs to be made in Ireland. Justice demands women's participation in political life but so does the job of getting this country on its feet again.

I thank the committee for the invitation to address it. I have circulated a copy of my presentation and I will summarise the key points. My interest in this issue grew from research I conducted into gender in the legal professions, to which Ms McKay referred. It was published in 2003 under the title, Gender Injustice. We found a marked discriminatory culture, which formed a barrier to women's career progress in law. One woman solicitor told us of her experience representing a client in court and being told by the male judge, "My dear, you are far too pretty to be taking this case". Although such blatant instances of discrimination were rare, we found a culture persisted, including in regard to the golf outings mentioned by Ms McKay.

Last year to commemorate the 90th anniversary of Constance Markievicz's election as the first woman Deputy or MP, I organised an event and the Ceann Comhairle gave us the Dáil Chamber for the day to fill with all living current and former women Deputies and Senators. Both Senators Mary White and McDonald participated and it was an exceptional day. It marked not only a commemoration and celebration of the women who had been elected but also a symbolic message about how few women have ever been elected. There was a total of 80 women in the Chamber and, therefore, it was the first time we saw how the Dáil would look if it was almost half full with women.

Following that, I wanted to carry out research under the auspices of an Oireachtas committee and I proposed to the chairman of the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights that we establish a sub-committee on women's participation in politics, which was set up in April. I will outline what we have done and I will conclude by focusing on the issue of electoral systems. Our sub-committee reported last week to the joint committee. The orders of reference are set out in the first page of my submission with the recommendations set out later. Our report was adopted with cross-party support on 28 October and it is due to be launched in the audiovisual room at 11.30 a.m. tomorrow. All Oireachtas Members are invited to attend. Senator McDonald is also a member of the sub-committee.

The key findings were that Ireland's record of women's representation has disimproved over recent elections. That is important because there is a perception that it is only a matter of time before women's numbers will increase in the Oireachtas. We used the Interparliamentary Union's international rankings, which are the accepted standard, and they relate only to the lower or single house of parliament, which is why the figure for Ireland is always given as 13%. Women's representation in the Dáil is 13.8% or 23 women Deputies out of 166 following the by-election in June, which places us 84th in the world according to the IPU ranking. The equivalent figure for the Seanad is higher at 22%, with 13 women out of 60 Senators. This is well below both the world and European averages. We have disimproved. In 1990 when Mary Robinson was elected President, Ireland ranked 37th. Belgium was then 34th but it introduced gender quota legislation. Since then, it has risen to 14th place whereas Ireland has dropped to 84th. If nothing is done, the number of women falls. The Dáil remains 86% male and this percentage has never been lower than that, which is also an important finding.

This has negative consequences. In practical terms for voters and politicians, it reduces voter choice. Political parties do not select enough women to give voters a sufficient choice. For example, in nearly 12% of all Dáil constituencies in the last general election there was no woman candidate. In those five constituencies, all-male tickets were presented to the voters. In at least 60% of constituencies there were no women candidates from either of the two largest political parties. Clearly, there is a problem, not only for the reasons we have heard but also from the point of view of restricted voter choice.

The literature clearly shows the different obstacles. We summarise them under five headings: child care, cash, confidence, culture and candidate selection procedures. We suggested a package of reforms to address all five of those challenges facing women on entry into politics. We focused on the need to change candidate selection procedures. Political parties have been referred to as the gatekeepers of the process, which is often referred to as a secret garden of candidate selection because the mechanics of the process, as all of us in politics are aware, are intricate and often murky.

We looked at the issue of quotas. It is often assumed that quotas mean mandatory outcomes and reserved seats for women. One finds those in some countries, particularly in Africa and Asia. They are not recommended in the European system. We looked extensively at the law in this area and concluded that there might be a legal problem with introducing them. However, opportunity quotas, or placing limits on the number of candidates of each gender which political parties can select to put to the voters, are perfectly lawful and have been adopted in a large number of countries throughout the world. Having started in the Argentine Republic in the 1950s they are widespread in Latin America and now across Europe. We recommend that parties should be required to adopt no more than a stated proportion of candidates of one gender. The Belgian experience, where a law was introduced stipulating that no more than two thirds of candidates should be of one gender, has led to a marked increase in women's representation.

The electoral systems issue was not directly within the sub-committee's remit but we examined the Venice Commission report and looked at its research. The Venice Commission looked specifically at the impact of electoral systems on women's representation in politics. It found that in European systems no particular electoral system specifically disadvantages women. That was an important finding. It found that the vast majority of PR systems in Europe do not disfavour women. It found that the systems most favourable to women's representation appeared to be PR list systems in large constituencies and-or a nationwide list system. We have, effectively, list systems in multi-member constituencies. We do not have a nationwide list. That is something this committee might consider adopting as a recommendation for the Seanad election. An all-party committee chaired by former Senator, Deputy O'Rourke, recommended a national list system for Seanad elections. That might be of interest to this committee.

Closed lists, where the party decides the running order and the voter adopts the entire list, were recommended by the Venice Commission as favourable to women. We do not have a closed list system in Ireland. We have, effectively, open lists. Of course, some parties do not adopt a list, they simply put forward a single candidate in a multi-member district. However, the larger parties put forward an open list and voters rank the candidates on the party list.

The key recommendation of the Venice Commission was that legislated quotas, of the sort I have described, requiring political parties to select a particular minimum or maximum number of candidates of one gender, were the most effective means. The type of electoral system within which they should be introduced is less definitive. If changes are being viewed, some list-based PR with a facility for a closed list might be considered by this committee.

We will launch our report tomorrow and I will go into it in more depth then. In the meantime, I am happy to answer questions. I would say the Belgian experience is particularly interesting, from an Irish perspective.

I thank the committee for the invitation to address it. I have been working on the sub-committee with Senator Bacik, who has comprehensively dealt with the findings in our report. I support fully the recommendations and the report has been adopted in full by the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights. The candidate quota law, with or without penalties for parties which do not implement it, is one of the recommendations in our report. The Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights has only two women members, both Senators. In the current debate on the abolition of the Seanad we might also look at the role women Senators play in the Oireachtas and the wide-reaching policy initiatives taken by them. Much of Senator Mary White's child care policy is now coming to fruition after ten years of campaigning. She has now moved on to issues such as suicide and older people's rights. There is a role for more women in politics, and the Seanad is a place where strong women have come into politics and played a role.

The facts and figures are undisputed. We are in 84th position in the world with regard to women's representation in parliaments. Women have never held more than 13.8% of Dáil seats. This is a disgrace and it leaves much to be desired. It paints us as a Neanderthal people. This is not the image of Ireland we want to send to the world. We like to see ourselves as a first world society, which we are to a large degree, and we need to portray this in our Legislature.

If I had been asked six years ago if I supported gender quotas I would have answered with an emphatic no, but I have changed my mind. May I outline why I have updated my thoughts in this regard? As a young law student I joined the Kevin Barry Cumann in University College Dublin and worked my way up through Fianna Fáil, winning some very hard-fought internal battles along the way. That nearly wore me out. I ran for Wexford County Council at the age of 29 and was elected. As the only Fianna Fáil councillor in my district, I was selected as a candidate in the general election of 2007. My constituency was a five seater and there were three Fianna Fáil candidates on the ticket. I received approximately 6,500 votes on a male dominated list, was placed sixth and was subsequently appointed to the Seanad by the then Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern. I also run my own thriving legal business in Wexford town and I am married with two small children. I have a very busy work schedule and a broad range of experience.

The five Cs are cited in all reports as a big barrier to women's representation in politics and they have been referred to by speakers today. They are child care, cash, confidence culture and the candidate selection procedure. I am sure the research is correct and up to date. However, my experience is that I could hurdle four of those Cs with proper time management and support. Our culture, however, is a different matter. Three or four months before the last general election, the editor of a local Wexford paper said I would not get elected because I had recently started a family. The article in question was headed, "Only Female Candidate Needs To Get Going". This is an example of the barrier of male chauvinism faced by women in politics. We can dance around this issue but we may as well say it straight. The Irish mindset will not change unless we are willing to recognise the existence of cultural barriers which we need to change from the top down.

I had a strong mother who brought me up to believe I could be whatever I wanted to be and achieve anything if I worked hard enough for it. The first time I felt discrimination was during the 2007 general election campaign. I strongly criticise Fianna Fáil headquarters in this regard. During that campaign and on other occasions, they did not give me the same support they gave to others. The thought crossed my mind on many occasions that I was the token female candidate. That is an endemic issue in our society when we say, "That's women for you". That attitude prevails. A woman like me is described as too pushy while a man with the same attributes would be considered a great fellow.

Women on the tickets of smaller parties might not experience this mindset. Many smaller parties nominate only one candidate in each constituency and that candidate attracts the entire party vote and has a greater chance of success. This is why some of the smaller parties have more women Deputies, in percentage terms, than the bigger parties. When a woman has to fight in the larger parties to get them to choose her over competition with male candidates, it has been proved she is fighting an uphill battle. The larger parties, however, need to guard against this and positive action must be taken. Otherwise women interested in getting involved in politics will be naturally attracted to the smaller parties or those with more of an equality ethos. This in turn will give the larger parties a more male-dominated sheen which could have a domino effect and ultimately cause damage. Liz O'Donnell, the former Member and Minister of State, in her presentation to the Sub-Committee on Women's Participation in Politics simply put it that she joined the party which had space for her.

Our culture needs a sea change and this committee needs to highlight this. If the committee chooses to deal with this issue in isolation, it will go nowhere. Parties have been running women candidates for years but they have failed to attract the votes. This in turn makes the larger parties reticent of running or taking a chance on a woman unless she is from a political dynasty, which helps as there is usually a party machine ready, willing and able to help.

Change must come from the top. The only way of achieving this is through some form of quota system. The recommendation for a candidate quota law with penalties is a good start. Senator Bacik referred to the Belgian method, however, which does not have penalties but works very well. It may also be easier to get the Oireachtas to go with such a system rather than some of the other suggested ones.

Our State systems must play a role in reforming this mindset too. Our education system is where we must start and women role models need to be actively promoted. Family law needs to be radically overhauled with paternal rights addressed. The social welfare system also encourages female dependency. Even the wording of some of our laws can offend or at best support a mentality that women are the inferior sex.

Paternity leave is specifically mentioned in Senator Bacik's report. In my view it is pivotal. Until the State recognises that fathers have a role to play in child care and rearing, we will never break our conservative traditions.

The male-dominated business world also needs attention. How many female officers are in positions of power in our main banks? How many of our large developers are women? How many women were operating in the testosterone-driven echelons of the stockbroking and derivatives world? With a more gender representative quota we may not be experiencing the same results of bad practice with which we are now burdened. This applies to politics as well.

The appointment of the token female officer to any board or position is no longer appropriate. This practice of tokenism is often mirrored in the obligatory ethnic appointment of people to committees in other countries. I cite these business parallels as examples of how we as a society may have got it wrong in the past but could learn from our mistakes to improve both our political and business infrastructure.

We have recently heard a lot of populist talk about the abolition of the Seanad and political reform. It has been shown that women tend to fare better in six or more seat constituencies. This is mirrored in some local election results. I am not sure we need to move to such a system. Instead I would support the candidate quota system, such as the Belgian one. It can always be re-examined 15 years from now if it is found not to have worked. However, we need to immediately move to a candidate quota system.

Our society and culture has a historical legacy of conservatism — a legacy of women being dominated by male-run organisations namely, the Catholic Church, the GAA and the State itself. Despite some efforts it has not changed. Susan McKay said it would take 370 years to bring some form of equality to this point. That is why we need to examine the quota system.

Oireachtas Members need to be the locomotive for this change. While I accept male Members may feel protective of their positions and will move cautiously on this, I ask for some courage, foresight and leadership on this issue because it is badly needed.

I thank Senator McDonald and now invite Ms Michelle Gildernew, MLA, MP, Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development.

Ms Michelle Gildernew MP, MLA

Go raibh maith agat a Chathaoirligh and I apologise for being late, particularly to Ms Fiona Buckley for missing her presentation. I am delighted to make a contribution to the committee today.

Sinn Féin is an all-Ireland political party and our experience of electing women has been different North and South. We have a good record of electing women in the North but, unfortunately, we lost our only female MEP in the South in the last European election and have no women elected to Leinster House.

As an MP, I would like to have the opportunity to participate more fully in the Oireachtas. As a Northern MP, I have certain rights but I would like those to be extended to full rights in the Houses of the Oireachtas, as we have much to contribute. I would have been hugely honoured to have been asked to participate in last year's event in Leinster House marking Countess Markievicz's election. As the second woman elected for Sinn Féin since her, it would have been lovely to have attended.

The political system that I grew up in Tyrone was not only dominated by middle-aged and middle class men, but by Unionist men at that. It was, therefore, difficult to break into the political arena. I am not going to repeat what has been said about different voting systems but give my personal experience of political participation.

Growing up I had strong female role models and a strong equality ethos. I would not have recognised or understood much of what I have experienced since becoming a mother. Previously, I would have felt matters were on an equal footing, even my opportunities in my party. After my first child, when I struggled to find child care and more, I realised women have distinct disadvantages in political life as with cultural and job opportunities.

It is important that women are elected because we have a different perspective and make a unique contribution to political life. Like Senator McDonald, I was first elected at 28 years of age, an MP at 31 years but had my children after that. My three children are seven, four and one and I am still breast-feeding my youngest which has brought distinct challenges of its own. As a Minister in a male-dominated field, on my first day in office I initiated a rural child care strategy, recognising the barrier the lack of child care can be to women's participation in public life in whatever sphere.

The group I set up did a study on the barriers to child care and how that prevents women from either taking up employment, training or whatever. I believe that child care and indeed care and responsibilities in general, are a barrier that we have to get over. Our system in the North is probably worse, because we have no crèche in Stormont. We actually have a child care allowance, but it is capped at two children. If that is not discriminatory, tell me what is – and I have exceeded that by 50%. This shows that there is very much a male dominated focus in the Northern Assembly. However, I do not want to dwell entirely on the North, because Sinn Féin is very much an all-Ireland party and we strive to put women into winnable seats and give them the support they need to become elected.

Democracy requires that all perspectives in society are represented and therefore we need more women in political parties on the basis of equality. We need the party organisation, structure and management to fully support all members on a basis of equality. The decision-making processes need to involve women activists. That is very important and we need candidate selection processes to involve women activists. We have to recognise the importance of selection procedures to persuade parties to select women candidates.

We also have to recognise the reality of life inside political parties and the fact that many women may be put off by the confrontational nature of the current political debate. Certainly, being elected as a young woman into the first Northern Assembly was very controversial. There was a sliding scale as regards the women the Unionist parties, in particular, hated. It obviously started with the Sinn Féin women, and even within that grouping, there was a ranking order. Bairbre de Brún was a prime target and every time she stood on her feet there were hisses and catcalls from across the Chamber, including some of the women MLAs, which was something that disgusted me. There was Bairbre, then Mary Nellis, and we were all vilified like that on a sliding scale. Within the SDLP the main target of hate was Bríd Rodgers and then there was the Women's Coalition so that there was very much a confrontational attitude towards Nationalist women in that Chamber. We stuck it out and we changed it, but it was not easy going into that environment as a young woman. I am certain it must have been off-putting for other women seeing on television or wherever, the type of bear pit conditions we were going into.

We must also recognise that working hours are a barrier to women. In local government many meetings are held in the evenings. It does not matter how remunerated one is for child care, if one is going out the door as the children are coming in from school. There is a barrier there and it needs to be suitably addressed. The Welsh Assembly has a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. working day, and that is attractive to women. We have seen that the numbers of women being elected to the Welsh Assembly is on the increase. Anti-social hours have long been a deterrent to women who might otherwise consider a political career. From that viewpoint we are not as bad as they are in Westminster, however. I worked in London before I was elected to the Northern Assembly, and they would go on until 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. For anyone with caring responsibilities, it is just impossible to get any type of balance in such a working environment.

There are two electoral systems in the North. In some elections we have proportional representation which encourages higher voter turnout than non-PR systems. However, in Westminster elections a first-past-the-post system is used. That is particularly difficult as regards trying to ensure that women not only get the candidacy, but have the support they need to get them elected.

From the Sinn Féin perspective we also have to look at the party and women in senior positions. For example, our ard rúnaí is Dawn Doyle, the vice-president is Mary Lou McDonald and Bairbre de Brún is our MEP. We have excellent women, too, however, who stood in previous elections such as Toireasa Ferris, Kathleen Funchion, etc. We have a system whereby strong women have a role in our party. That is probably reflected in the party's origins where we had women such as Countess Markievicz and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington taking a very strong role within politics, political life and even military life. Therefore, there were strong women as role models and I have been very lucky to have grown up in that environment in Sinn Féin.

In the last Northern Assembly elections we ran nine women and eight were elected. It was a great annoyance to us that we did not elect all nine, but it shows that women must also be put into winnable seats. Out of the eight Sinn Féin women elected, we have two Ministers as well as a number of committee chairs and vice chairs, including some of the most important committees. Women have to be given responsibility and the opportunity to make their mark. As Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development I have done what I can to improve the life of women in rural areas in farming families. I was the first Minister ever to sit down with a delegation from Women's Aid to discuss the impact of domestic violence on women. When this was first raised with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development the response was, "That has nothing to do with us". However, I insisted that it had because I knew of women in isolated rural areas who, perhaps, lived on farms that might have been in the family for three or four generations and who did not believe they had any rights in the event of marriage breakdown. Such women can be very isolated, and can have problems as regards getting refuge. It is very difficult for such women, particularly where they might have children attending school, and the only refuge could be 20 or 30 miles away.

There are also issues of isolation, such as where a marriage has broken down and the husband sits on a tractor in a lane to block the woman from getting in or out, or perhaps intimidate her in other ways. If the woman is living in a town it would, perhaps, be much easier for the police to attempt to do something about the situation. I believed it was important that I as agriculture Minister should meet with Women's Aid to hear its viewpoint so that I could do whatever possible to help mitigate some of the problems being faced by such women living in rural areas.

The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development believed that I should not participate in such a meeting. However, it was very important that I, as a woman, insisted we held the meeting to try to make life better for women who live in rural communities. Such experiences and the unique perspective they afford are very important to carry with one to ensure one fights those battles when one is given responsibility within one's elected capacity. It is tempting to sit back and allow others to fight, but it is important for us to do what we can when we attain positions of responsibility.

I am doing a great deal as regards anti-poverty, social exclusion, fuel poverty and rural transport, stretching my remit, perhaps, but ensuring that we make a difference to the lives of vulnerable people in rural communities. That does not just relate to women, but also to lone parents, ethnic minorities, the disabled, carers, etc. I believe it is important that we are given the space to be women in the roles we have. I have heard other public representatives say, in effect, "I'm elected as an Ulster Unionist, not as a woman", and making such a statement publicly is perhaps one of the reasons the Ulster Unionist Party now has no women MLAs in the Northern Assembly. We must show pride in being women and bringing that gender perspective to what we do, ensuring that we make matters better for the women who come behind us.

Out of the 108 MLAs in the Northern Assembly there are 18 women, so our figure is only marginally better at 16.7% and there is much to do. The other female MLAs include four from the SDLP, two from Alliance, one from the PUP and three from the DUP. As I said, unfortunately no woman was elected for the Ulster Unionist Party. I do not want to repeat what has been said already, but there is much that we can do and, of course, there is a great deal to be done. I welcome the fact that this Oireachtas committee is having this meeting. When Sinn Féin is choosing its candidates, particularly in constituencies where there is a chance of winning more than one seat, we tend to ensure that there are women on the ticket. In my first experience as a candidate in the forum elections in the late 1990s – the dim and distant past – we had five people on the ticket. We ensured we had two men, two women and one person from the South to reflect the all-Ireland nature of the party. While that might have been controversial in some circles, it was important for us to put down a marker for an ethos of equality in our party, and to do everything in our power to ensure that we elect women into positions and we give them the space to have their voice heard when elected. I thank the committee for inviting me here today. I look forward to reading the report, and I am very proud and honoured to be on a platform with the strong women that we have today. I hope we can work better together in the future.

Thank you very much. I appreciate the contributions and it appeared to me that each contribution reinforced the other. There was real synergy and I hope the recommendations that come from this committee will change matters. The important item that has come up is the idea of the quota for the election of candidates in every party. An electoral commission might soon be formed, and perhaps that is the time when the ideas being generated can be brought to fruition. Ms Gildernew, MP, ended the discussion by saying that we hope more women will be elected to Parliament to represent the proportion of women in the population.

It is fair to say that we have had a very thought provoking and challenging series of presentations here, and I thank everybody for that. They have opened up many areas on which we have not been focusing in our political life. I strongly support women's participation in politics. I see a genuine effort among parties in the South to get greater participation. Senator McDonald mentioned a particular case, but I see that effort in general among all the parties. We have not been particularly successful in our efforts, in light of the percentages presented by the Senator. When we look at the male membership in this committee, I suppose it confirms that point.

At a practical level, is there a large pool of women who want to be involved in politics? In the local elections last June, our general approach was to try to get women involved. We sent a directive to all our constituencies that in every town council, there had to be at least one women on every panel. I found difficulty in getting women to stand in a couple of instances. Two women in my constituency stood for the county council and five stood for the town councils, and they were all elected. There was much success but there was also a genuine difficulty in getting people to stand, in spite a real effort made to do so. I would have ensured that more women stood for elections if I could get them.

I also find that women do not get involved in constituency branches and organisations, in spite of active encouragement to do so. I have always tried to get women involved, and why would I not try when I have seven daughters? They have not shown any particular interest in politics, although they rally around their father when he needs them. Leaving aside the national issue, how can we have a system at local level of encouraging more female participation in politics? This is separate to the issue of quotas at national level, which we will have to examine very seriously in light of the presentation being made here.

First I apologise because I have to attend a meeting at 11 a.m. with a group of Wexford business people. We have to mind the home fires as well, so I will have to leave shortly.

I welcome the presentations. Part of the presentations were about why we need to change things. We have moved beyond the why. That case is made. The only question now is how. Like Senator McDonald, I resisted the notion of quotas because I thought they were undemocratic, but we have not succeeded in changing things. In fact, it is depressing that we are going backwards and we cannot just hope for things to change.

We have mechanisms in the Labour Party to change things. We have the best representation of women, even though it is not great. Seven of our 20 Members in the Dáil are women, which is by far the best. It is not true to say that the smaller parties are necessarily better. There is one female Green Deputy out of six and there is no female Sinn Féin Deputy in its parliamentary party. That is a reality, so we have to change things. The Labour Party proposed a Bill to start the process where there would be a requirement of gender equality of candidates to draw down political funding. Unfortunately, that Bill was defeated when it was introduced. We need to take concrete measures so there are sanctions for not achieving gender equality of candidates.

I have come to the view that we need to change the electoral system, rather than just introduce a quota system. To get women elected, the presentation by Ms Fiona Buckley indicated that we needed the largest possible multi-seat constituencies. The down side of that, which we have all experienced, is that it is very wasteful of resources. For every local issue in Wexford, we have five Deputies and three Senators arriving on the scene and we are all generating the same representations. That is not sustainable, and the down side of even larger constituencies is that it is very burdensome on the political system. We need to have a combination of constituency elected Members and a top-up list that would be gender balanced, with a legal requirement to do that.

Our work is not to listen to the arguments about why these things need to be done, as we have been listening to them for 30 years. Our work is to find an effective mechanism that will have public support. The fear I have about trying to achieve some of these goals is that things like the so-called closed list puts so much power in the hands of the party that people will revolt against it. There have been regimes in political parties within memory who we would not like to make the party choice on who should be presented on lists.

Senator Bacik spoke about the murky selection of candidates.

Whatever system we come up with has to bring the people with us. People will not accept a situation where they feel excluded and where some type of internalised mechanism for candidate selection is in operation behind closed doors. We have a degree of work to do in this regard. I am not convinced that some of the models that work elsewhere will necessarily be acceptable to Irish people.

The common theme of today's presentations relates to the cultural issues that must be addressed if we are to move from where we are to where we need to be. I am not sure to what extent we can legislate to bring about that cultural change; clearly there is scope for legislative intervention but there are also other means we can consider. My party strives to ensure there is least 40% representation for each gender in its candidate selections. Notwithstanding the fact that we have fallen short of that target, my party had the highest proportion of female candidates at the last election. However, it was almost 18 years after the election of the first Green Party candidate before a female Member joined the ranks of our Dáil complement.

There are difficult questions to address in this debate, some of which have not yet been asked. It remains the case that the most likely way for a woman to progress in political life is for her to have family connections in politics. I am not sure to what extent that is a barrier for other women getting involved in politics. The same issue arises for male candidates but it seems to be more pronounced for women. One of the questions I have not heard asked has to do with a particular aspect of Irish political culture. I am firmly of the view that people should vote for the best candidate rather than on the basis of gender, but it is an issue of some concern that women, even when given a choice between male and female candidates, vote in greater numbers for male candidates. Is any research being done into the cultural issues at play here and how they might be addressed? Ultimately, it is the candidate with the most votes who is elected. If women candidates are not receiving votes in sufficient numbers, there may be issues to consider in the first instance for that 50% of the population.

I am always concerned at the notion of a list system where it is people in a back room who decide which candidate goes forward. We must bear in mind that rejected candidates can always opt to go forwards as Independents. The current system of proportional representation and multi-seat constituencies offers citizens a very effective and competitive system. I very much agree that four, five and even six-seat constituencies offer far more options for everybody, including the political parties, and that three-seat constituencies are not as good in this respect.

From time to time I am struck by the realisation that some of the great female Members we have had during the years either stepped down or were not re-elected. It would be interesting to see some research into why that is so. Some of the possible reasons are obvious. As well as the issues of political culture that we have discussed, some aspects of parliamentary practice such as the hours involved are entirely unsuitable to family life. There is also the reality that parliamentary politics is massively competitive and that its practitioners must be prepared to take insults from everybody. Politicians must have the vision and self-belief — a conviction in the public service they are rendering — to persist in their goals, irrespective of who says what. One must battle on. I do not mean to be critical of anyone in making this point but merely wish to emphasise that the practice of politics is tough, particularly under our system of multi-seat constituencies. Nor am I arguing that every elected representative must seek to stay in politics until the end of his or her days. I am sure Ms Gildernew understands what I am talking about. She is somebody who recognises the realities of the situation and has the strength to persist. Unfortunately, it is also the case that one's partner must be strong. People do not talk about this but it is a reality. If one wishes to maintain a relationship, one's partner must be strong enough to withstand the challenges of political life.

There must be careful examination of all these issues. As I said, I have doubts about the merits of a list system. I find from dealings with colleagues in the United Kingdom and on the Continent that they are not as closely in touch with the electorate as are Irish politicians. One can criticise Oireachtas Members as much as one likes, but there is no denying that they are in touch with the people and aware of their concerns. They maintain that contact while also attending to their legislative duties. Any closed system where people may potentially be protected in their positions is far inferior to a system that is transparent and offers good scope for competition.

We must examine how the various cultural barriers to female participation can be broken down. The report being prepared will be very helpful and encourage parties to look hard at the issues. We must examine why, although women are prepared to participate in local government, very few progress to the next level. It is not necessary for women to keep going forever but we hope they would at least persist for a few elections. That there is a problem in this regard is indicative of how tough political life can be.

In my seven years in Leinster House this has been the most exciting and stimulating meeting I have attended. It is not men's fault that politics is a men's club. I am surrounded by men in the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party but find all my male colleagues very supportive of me. Nor was I ever discriminated against on the basis of my gender in my capacity as a business person. The bottom line is that in politics, as in every other walk of life, there is no such thing as overnight success. There is clearly a need for more women to put themselves forward for election but they must begin by getting involved at the very lowest level and progressing their way through the party. Some prospective politicians expect to become Members of the Oireachtas immediately but the reality is the same for both men and women; one must go through the process of gaining the trust and confidence of party colleagues and securing a nomination. The most difficult part is being selected for the party ticket.

In the case of my own party, we need our leader, the Taoiseach, to reach out to women. The message must go out that the Fianna Fáil Party is seeking women to represent the party and put themselves forward for election. The current rates of female participation — 20% in the Seanad and 13% in the Dáil — must be improved. Ms Buckley referred to issues of concern to women. There are certain issues of constant interest to me. I have drawn up two policy documents on child care, one on ageing and ageism and another on suicide. While they all are softer issues, as a business person I have 16 years' experience of working 24 hours a day seven days a week to keep the business going. However, I believe the leadership of the party must change and must call out for women. I also must put on record——

The headquarters should do so.

No, it should be the leadership because headquarters simply does what it is told. The Chairman, Deputy Ardagh, is aware that from 1993, under Mr. Haughey and subsequently under Albert Reynolds, four seats were reserved for women on the national executive of Fianna Fáil. This constituted incredible progress but it never comes up in research on women in Irish politics. The Chairman is aware that I was elected to the national executive in 1993, as was Senator Feeney, who was elected to represent Connacht. Moreover, Paddie Connellan, who served on Longford Town Council, also was elected. In other words, three of the four who were elected that year became politicians. Although they were reserved seats, we still were obliged to fight the election and to win. I was obliged to canvass across all of Dublin's then 11 and now 12 constituencies. Nevertheless, it was the culture of the party at the time to have reserved seats.

I will be a little disingenuous by noting the former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, was much more concerned about having young people go forward during the time of his leadership as Taoiseach. That is fair enough and there is nothing wrong with it. I acknowledge Senator McDonald was such a person but I am making a general point. At the national executive, he constantly sought to increase the number of young people, which is fair enough. However, I would have preferred him to have expressed a desire both for more young people and more women. However, that is part of Fianna Fáil's history and I note the Chairman's wife, Maura Ardagh, was a significant player in respect of women's participation in politics.

While I hope I have not spoken for too long, I will conclude by stating that I am very lucky. Although I am highly sensitive on many issues, I seem to change when it comes to politics, in which I am not sensitive at all. I am well able for politics because I have a passion for it. The reason I stood for election to the Seanad was that one Saturday afternoon, I heard the former chairwoman of the Women's Political Association plead on radio with women to do so. I put my name forward although at the time I did not know one got paid as a Senator. When I won, I was shocked to learn one got paid. I felt that my election to a reserved seat for women gave me the guts to go forward again. The system that had helped me to get there led me to continue to go forward and to stick my neck out.

However, I reiterate my bottom line, which is the culture must come from the top. I refer to Senator McDonald's points about being pushy and so on. Women, albeit younger woman to a lesser extent, are afraid to be so perceived. Women of a certain age group do not like to be too pushy because they think they will not be liked. However, my male colleagues in Fianna Fáil's parliamentary party have accepted me and my personality and I do not believe I am so perceived. I believe they have got to know me and they trust me. This meeting was very exciting and I am delighted to be here to wish all the ladies well.

I wish to note that I was asked to help the family of Aidan McAnespie, who was shot by the British Army nearly 20 years ago. I was asked by the family to try to get an apology from the British Government. I contacted the Minister, Ms Gildernew, who arranged a meeting with Secretary of State Woodward and we got an amazing result. Is it correct to state that probably for the first time ever, the British Government accepted responsibility and apologised to the family?

Ms Michelle Gildernew, MP, MLA

One of the first.

This pertains to co-operation between women and I will do anything I can to help people to move forward politically.

While I apologise for moving in and out of this meeting, I have been watching some of the contributions on the monitor. Moreover, as a member of the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights, I already have had sight of an advance copy of the report by Senators Bacik and McDonald. Senator Mary White's contribution was extremely interesting and enlightening with regard to the quota system on the national executive because everyone tends to consider the issue of quotas in the context of the electoral system itself. Perhaps one must start at a far more basic level with quota systems within the party structures. While Fine Gael has such a structure in place for young people, it does not in respect of women. Making alterations at that level may have a more long-term impact. Developments within the IFA are worth considering as that organisation has in place a quota system ranging from the branch structure in the local parish right up to county structure level. Perhaps the impact of this system within that organisation, which is perceived to be far more male-dominated then the political system, should be analysed. This ties in well with the report that Senators Bacik and McDonald will launch tomorrow and its reference to the need for structural change within the parties, as well as to the timing of meetings and so on, that would facilitate both women and the parents of young children.

I wish to ask Ms Susan McKay two questions related to the report that has been produced by the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights. One issue that arose pertained to access to cash, in that if women are to run a campaign, they need to have the requisite financial resources. The study conducted by the Senators has pointed out that 70% of female representatives in the Oireachtas supported the establishment of a foundation to finance women's electoral campaigns. It is envisaged that such a foundation would be a non-governmental organisation that would raise the funds from private funders to support women in politics. Could the National Women's Council of Ireland envisage being the sponsoring authority to get such a scheme up and running?

The report also suggests the establishment of panels of women who would be interested in contesting elections to town and county councils, as well as to the Seanad and Dáil. I encountered the same problem as Deputy Jim O'Keeffe when trying to encourage women to contest local elections. Prior to the local elections, I approached six or seven women who are involved in local community groups and organisations to put their names forward. For various reasons, be they child care issues or other commitments, they were not prepared to do so. I suspect that to a great extent, this is an issue of confidence, which brings one back to the report produced by the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights. The question is how should this issue be addressed, because the other issues regarding cash and resources were not really a problem in the context of local elections.

However, I wish to concentrate on Ms Fiona Buckley's contribution, which ties in well with the contributions members heard last week from the general secretaries of the political parties. It was suggested that a reappraisal of multi-seat constituencies might address the issue regarding the skills base to be found in the Dáil at present. As Ms Fiona Buckley suggested today, it also could help to deal with the issue in respect of women's representation. It can also deal with a problem in my constituency in which the counties are divided, namely, a greater number of seats in physically large constituencies. Deputy Howlin raised concerns in this respect, but what is Ms Gildernew's opinion? As an MLA, she is in a multi-seat constituency. Has this increased competition compared with her role as an MP in a single-seat constituency? Is there a significant workload North of the Border as a result?

I will revert to the Minister, Ms Gildernew, immediately after Deputy Conlon says a few words because the Minister must leave.

I was at another committee meeting and was anxious to attend this meeting to hear the discussion. People refer to quotas and numbers, but the most fundamental change must be a change in perception. There is a notion that only men need to apply for the political field. I was a deputy principal in an all-girl school. I was actively involved in political life on a county basis and was not looking to run for the Dáil, but I was asked to run. In the last election, I was the constituency's only female candidate. When I called to people's doors, 85% of them were answered by women, particularly if I called during a big soccer match or so forth, although I am not being sexist. One woman told me that it was lovely to see one of our own. When she went out and talked with male candidates, they listened to her, but they did not always hear what she was saying. Those women believed that a female candidate had greater empathy with them and their issues, which is important.

Women should be encouraged to take their chance. When I was asked to run, I did not believe that I could do it because so many people were ahead of me, including councillors and those who had already been elected. I had not been elected to anything, so how was I to do it? When my husband asked me what I thought about it, I answered that my head told me "No" and that my heart told me "Yes". He said that I had to follow my heart. We need someone to give us a little push to go on. We need a sea change in attitude and in the perception of women and their role in politics.

When I was elected county chairperson, I was the first woman to have ever held the position. In last week's election, another woman came forward. As people see women becoming involved, more women are likely to join. However, there are considerable challenges from the point of view of families. For example, I am away from home perhaps two nights per week. If the supports are not present, this cannot be done. If women are given encouragement and help, they can make the break and make changes. They bring a different dynamic to the political field. Whatever encouragement and support, which is important, women need to take this step must be provided.

A couple of questions were asked among the comments made. Does Ms Gildernew wish to address them and the comments?

Ms Michelle Gildernew, MP, MLA

I apologise, as I must leave by 11.30 a.m. It is awful to be the last to arrive and the first to leave. Deputy Naughten discussed multi-seat constituencies for MLAs versus single-seat constituencies for MPs. I have not found much of a difference. At my MP convention in 2000, I was placed against one man, but I won by 80 votes to 20. I had resounding support within my constituency on the back of my work as an MLA and my profile. However, getting on the ticket is much more difficult. I was lucky to be in Sinn Féin and to have the support of its party machine. Of 18 MPs, there are three women. Getting onto the ticket in a single-seat constituency is difficult for women.

Deputy Woods discussed how contesting three seats in a multi-seat constituency was difficult and that the chances of having women elected improved in a five or six-seat constituency. Gerry Adams has gone on record as saying that, to elect more women, we must make space for them. This might mean men standing aside or accepting that it is time for a different voice now that their contributions have been made. In a three-seater, men must not close in on all of the positions or refuse to make space for women.

We are lucky in our party leadership, which makes it easier for me. Someone mentioned the national executive. Representation on our ard comhairle is 50:50, which filters down through the party as a means of indicating it is how we mean to go on.

We must equalise society. My first experience of this situation was when I played ladies' football. A girl on my team told me that, when her husband went to football training, he just lifted his bag and away he went. When she went for training, she needed to ensure the homework was done, the dinner was ready, the washing was done, the kit was ready and the babysitter was organised. Only then could she go. This is only a small example of how society is not equal. Therefore, the barriers to women are more obvious.

People asked about how to interest women and keep them interested in politics. I have stated something publicly, but I will speak in deference to the Houses. Women have a lower tolerance for BS. If I have three different places to be and I choose one meeting but I am hearing the same things that I heard at the previous meeting and that I know I will hear at the next meeting, I will make a different choice the next time. We must cut down on time. Do not take an hour to say something when five minutes would do. Get to the point, get the business done and get out of there. Waffle is one of the key turn-offs for women. While we can be guilty of it, people need to cut to the chase and leave, which is what I will do this morning.

Ms Michelle Gildernew, MP, MLA

I look forward to reading the report and I thank the committee for inviting me to attend.

I thank Ms Gildernew for attending. We appreciate her contribution, which has been helpful and informative. I wish her good luck with the rest of her day. Senator McDonald is next.

I wish to make a few replies. Deputy Naughten referred to how some parties' quotas have worked, but that is not the Fianna Fáil experience. I was on its national executive for nine or ten years, but our quota system has not translated into Dáil seats. All one needs to do is consider our eight women Deputies. Apart from Deputies Conlon and Hoctor, they come from dynasties and probably followed their fathers into politics. Our party is not throwing up women and I would be critical of our headquarters, which listens to too much gossip and innuendo and does not examine the situation on the ground.

A closed list system would be out of the question. Fianna Fáil is a large party and, while I am unsure about Fine Gael, the figures for the smaller parties speak for themselves, although someone might pull me up on this. Sinn Féin's figures owe to a cultural issue that it is addressing. One out of six is a higher proportion than eight out of 78 or so Deputies. The Labour Party's position is stronger, as was that of the Progressive Democrats while it existed.

Regarding Deputy Jim O'Keeffe's words on getting women to get involved, I endorse the comments of the Minister, Ms Gildernew. There is a threshold beyond which one cannot bring oneself as a woman. If one is a councillor for the fifth year listening to a problem with nothing being done about it, it is stressful and one questions what one is doing. Women are results-based creatures and they like to see results.

Does Senator McDonald not believe men feel the same?

No, they do not because they stick around more than women. Deputy Jim O'Keeffe referred to all the women candidates that run in his constituency and how successful they are.

In Wexford four women served on the last county council and there are two in this current council. A brilliant councillor, Barbara Ann Murphy, lost her seat. This was a bad day for Fianna Fáil but the male candidate did not lose his seat. In some of the Dublin constituencies it is easier to win as a woman. As a Dublin-based woman, politics is a more attractive career because one can have shorter days and one is not away from home as much. I am not sure I would advocate a longer week because those from Kerry or Donegal would be away from home for longer. There are several examples of great women, such as Senator Keaveney, a policy-driven Deputy who failed to retain her seat, who wanted to stick around but failed. In other cases they did not stick around because of the pace at which we work. As a solicitor, it takes three or four years to get cases into court and they might continue for six or seven weeks. I am used to that in my life and women in the professions are able to stick the pace but the pace of politics and the way we do business is a burden. That is what we must deal with. We should stop kicking things to touch and dealing with problems. That is an observation I am making as a young parliamentarian who has been here for two years.

Deputy Conlon referred to perception and image and the media have a major role to play in this. The media are very complimentary to an exceptional woman but a mediocre woman, who may be just as good as a male counterpart, is inflicted with bad publicity. That is a shame and someone said that we will never really reach equality until mediocre women can take their places among mediocre men.

I endorse what Deputy Woods said about a partner being strong. As my husband is a very good cook I am shooed out of the kitchen, which is very helpful. He can do that job and I do not have to. Sometimes he gives out about it and sometimes he reminds me about it. That is married life and it is acceptable.

What about doing the washing up?

One must strike a balance and it is very difficult.

Following Senator MacDonald's observations on the media, what a woman is wearing is the first thing the media sees. They see whether her shoes match her outfit, her hair is done and her face is done. Men are not subjected to the same scrutiny or at least we do not see it in the newspaper. People are aware that I experienced an unpleasant incident a number of months ago. Someone telephoned the local radio station and said that if I had been at home at the kitchen sink, cooking, washing the dishes and looking after the family it would not have happened. That would not be said about a man. The media has a major role to play and does not do us any service.

I thank Members for their helpful comments. Deputy Jim O'Keeffe referred to the difficulty in recruiting women, particularly at local government level. Our report examines local, national and European level and our recommendation for legislative quotas applies to the local level also. Political parties should be required by law to select no more than two thirds of their candidates at any level from one gender. In other words, at least one third should be women.

What would happen if one could not get women as candidates?

We recommend various measures to get them. Currently it is not working at local level because the figures have worsened. Following the last local elections, women went from 17% of councillors to 16%. There is only one woman out of 32 councillors in Clare and one out of 24 on Wicklow County Council. These are shocking figures and something must be done.

If the quota is imposed, how does one recruit? Deputy Conlon's point that she was asked to run is fascinating. The research supports the point that women must be actively recruited. We recommend that parties should be obliged to take on recruitment drives and headhunt women. To assist in this, there could be a national databank. We saw a model for this in Norway. Deputy Naughten asked whether the National Women's Council will be a sponsoring authority for this because he is conscious of the recommendation we made. Could the National Women's Council or another NGO take on fund-raising? In other countries fund-raising campaigns to bring forward women helped to increase confidence.

The key matter that arises from members' comments is changing the culture. Senator Boyle asked if we can legislate to bring about culture change. We cannot and legislation must come alongside a package of other measures, including recruitment drives, a national databank and a fund-raising campaign. The research shows that once women are brought forward, the culture changes. If political parties are required to bring forward women through the murky candidate selection procedures, one changes the culture and changes the retention rates.

Deputy Woods's comment on how to retain women once they are elected is the key point. There is clearly a problem but critical mass helps because it makes it much easier for women to stay. We have all had the experience of walking into the Dáil bar and it is full of men. One does not feel welcome and there is no space for women. The former Deputy, Ms Liz O'Donnell, made the remark that one will only be involved if one feels there is space. This comes back to branch meetings, which other members including Deputy Jim O'Keeffe raised, and how to make parties more welcoming. The lowest level, branch meetings, must not be held in pubs. Former Deputy Niamh Bhreathnach spoke about branch meetings being held at Sunday lunchtime in a pub. Women never attended for obvious reasons. Evenings may also be difficult. Parties must examine this matter and it must apply at local level as much as elsewhere.

Deputy Howlin referred to the difficulty posed by the electoral systems. There is a misunderstanding about the list system, which often refers to a national list system when used in Ireland. Ireland's system involves local lists because political parties propose a list of candidates in small constituencies. I urge committee members to examine the Venice Commission report and paragraph 70 in particular, the only paragraph that refers specifically to Ireland: "If a PR system is used only in small districts, as it is in the case of Ireland, it can be just as disadvantageous to women as SMDs [single member districts]".

We need multi-member districts. There could be an open or closed list within that but it should not be used in small geographical districts. The Vienna Commission report suggests a bigger region, as in the European elections, or a national list is better for women. Our report does not recommend any change to the electoral system other than the quota. From reading the report, it seems that there is no specific disadvantage to women in the electoral system in Ireland but we need a quota to ensure more women come forward as candidates. If we are to change it I suggest examining the national list in the Seanad. I urge members to read the recommendations of the report being launched tomorrow.

Ms Susan McKay

Many issues have been raised but many of these have been answered by earlier speakers. Deputy Jim O'Keeffe's question has been substantively answered by Michelle Gildernew and Senator MacDonald but all contributors referred to the question of how to get more women interested in getting into politics. It is great to hear the comments coming from a Minister with responsibility for agriculture about women's tolerance for what she politely calls BS. This is very much part of the notion of family friendly hours. How much time is spent waffling in the Houses of the Oireachtas? Do we need major long sessions that men think they need to put in? Is it not an avoidance of domestic responsibilities in some cases? It is not necessarily the case that one achieves more by being at meetings from 7.30 a.m. until midnight.

Deputy Howlin spoke about how politicians have been listening to the arguments for 30 years. I suppose the proper answer to that is that they have not because they have not done anything about them. I will refer to what Deputy Conlon stated about what women said to her on the doorsteps; men may listen to women but they do not necessarily hear what they say. Much more attentive listening needs to be done.

Senator Boyle asked whether one can legislate to bring cultural change. I disagree with Senator Bacik on that and I believe that one can. Numerous pieces of legislation could be introduced and other speakers referred to their role in the introduction of such law on child care, refuges and public transport. Senator Bacik came to prominence through her championing of women's reproductive rights. There are many pieces of legislation which, in themselves, can bring about the beginnings of cultural change. If they are put in place one can then start to work on mentality. Women need to be given supporting structures before they can even begin to get involved. On the question of why Irish women do not vote for other Irish women, if the parties work on giving women strong women candidates with a hope of succeeding in electable seats, then women will vote for them and Ms Buckley cited evidence of this.

Deputy Woods spoke about the need for family-friendly situations and supportive families and this is true. However, we must let men see their domestic responsibilities as well as let women see that they can operate in other forums. He also spoke about the disincentive of having to take insults from everybody. If one examines the English language one will find that most of its derogatory words are to do with women. Women are well used to taking insults in all walks of life and could take a few in politics if it meant they would bring about changes.

It was great to hear Senator Mary White state that this had been an exiting and stimulating session but then she spoke about her role in the introduction of a number of measures which she described as being on softer issues, namely, child care, suicide and ageing. These are not soft issues. They are very hard and important issues. Women need to represent our issues as being the important issues. Senator Mary White also spoke about women's dislike of being pushy and this was addressed by Senator McDonald when she spoke about qualities seen as being good in men not being seen as acceptable in women. Women need to be supported in this regard. In this country, women's anger is not generally seen as being an acceptable quality but the way things are going one will see much more of this unacceptable emotion and expression in women.

Deputy Naughten asked whether the National Women's Council of Ireland would be willing to support a foundation to promote women in politics. Of course we certainly would. At present, we are fighting to save our own slender budget and those of our member organisations from cuts. When we get through those particular battles we will certainly be willing and very pleased to be asked to be involved in any measures that would assist more women getting involved in politics. The issue of confidence is very important for women. In our work with women's groups throughout the country we see brilliant women every day and night involved in local and community politics. Those women should be considered by political parties and should be promoted.

The question of mediocre women and men was raised. One could not but note the little television screens near the ceiling in the room and while watching them suddenly the notion of pigeons in bus station rafters came to mind looking at the succession of grey men standing up to speak in the Dáil. We need to change that. When women first got involved in politics in the North under the new power-sharing system they were very striking in the way that they stood out. Deputy Conlon's comment on clothes was appropriate because as a journalist, on many occasions I have been the token woman on panels and inevitably people have commented that I should not have worn the colour of lipstick that I did. Often, when I state that I cannot participate in something I am asked whether I know another woman who might be able to do it. There is much tokenism but we can use that. At least it is an open door.

At present, women must use every possible measure to get themselves into the public domain but men must play their part in the Irish political system. There should be a much greater sense of urgency among the men in both Houses of the Oireachtas about getting women involved. It is quite a bad reflection on all Members that there are not more women involved.

Ms Fiona Buckley

I thank the committee members for their thoughts, some of which are important to discuss. I noted the comments of Deputies Howlin and Woods on the closed list system and the control of party headquarters, and these issues need to be addressed. Senator Bacik mentioned the secret garden and murkiness of candidate selection. There may be a perception about the closed system that when people are selected they are more concerned about impressing the party leader than representing their constituents. We would have to examine that but this is a forum at which to consider such matters.

Senator Boyle commented on women voting or not voting for women. We need to examine the responses and research on this according to age profile. Some 72% of women surveyed in the Irish national election study want to see women candidates. When one examines surveys and voting behaviour in this country, one sees women voting for women but one must consider age profiles. Increasingly, younger women voters tend to be blasé about voting for women. One finds greater support levels in those aged 35 and over. A suggested reason for this is political socialisation. I was born in 1977 and was politically socialised in the 1980s. Economic concerns and the recession were big deals for me then. My mother was born in 1949. She was politically socialised in the 1960s and 1970s when there was a strong equality agenda and feminist movement. It was more visible at that time. Perhaps there is a perception among younger female voters that, to borrow a phrase from a political party, there is a lot done. They are happy with what is being done but much more should be done on equality. Perhaps it is no longer a big issue for young female voters.

Perhaps there is an acceptance among younger female voters of the given state we are in that politics tends to be male dominated. Deputy Conlon referred to the word "perception". This is important and links to Deputy Jim O'Keeffe's question on how to get people from civil society into the political arena. I read recent research on this topic in Northern Ireland where many women are involved in community groups in civil society. Traditionally, they were very strongly involved in community groups throughout the troubles. However, when these women were asked to run in politics they responded that their perception was that politics was male dominated, that it was not the forum for them and that they would not be able to break down that culture.

It is interesting that local government has been discussed. The decrease in women's participation in local government after the most recent local elections is of concern. It has been shown time and again that having a local government profile or becoming an elected local authority member is a significant step on the political career path. Some 82% of the 23 female Members of the current Dáil served in local government at some stage, compared with only 55% of the 60 unsuccessful female candidates. This demonstrates the importance of local government to a career at national level. However, some women who are active at civil society level perceive local government as being weak and question the potential for effecting change by that route compared with becoming involved in community groups and civil society.

It can also be difficult nowadays to find men who are willing to run for these positions. Perhaps that is a separate area of research, however.

Ms Fiona Buckley

That might be due to perceptions of local government weakness, which is a completely different area of research. Many women do not want to run for local office because they feel they can do more in civil society. Ms Michelle Gildernew, MP, diplomatically noted that politics at the local level is full of "BS" and that people are building a national profile rather than treating local government with the respect it deserves.

Deputy Jim O'Keeffe and Ms McKay expressed concerns about the media. I recall a newspaper article from last year which referred to Deputy Gilmore's girls doing him proud. Is this the way women wish to be portrayed? The media can also do a good job in highlighting these issues and it is welcome, for example, that Senator Bacik's reports have been covered. However, all politicians should be treated the same. Women can be subject to more personal criticism.

No politician is being treated terribly well at present.

Ms Fiona Buckley

That is true. Culture is an important issue. Senator McDonald spoke about the importance of education. Is it now too easily accepted that politics is a male dominated profession and, if so, should we not educate people to change their perceptions? We need to use the education system, from primary level onwards, to get across the message that women should get involved in politics. I thank members for their contributions to a thoroughly enjoyable discussion.

I thank Ms Fiona Buckley, Ms Susan McKay and Senators Bacik and McDonald. I hope our deliberations will progress the cause of increasing women's representation in the next Dáil and at local level.

The joint committee went into private session at 11.55 a.m. and adjourned at 12.20 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 18 November 2009.