Women’s Participation in Politics: Statements (Resumed).

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ciarán Cuffe.

Will the Minister of State consider this point? One of the biggest problems in creating space for women in politics or in various organisations is right-wing and conservative women who, having become successful in their own way, feel they should pull up the ladder behind them. These women often say: "If I did it, they can do it." This is a serious point. I have dealt with this problem in the trade union movement and elsewhere. The objection is well intentioned. Some women say they do not want things to be made easier for them. Time and history have shown things do not work quite that way.

The proposal in the report we are discussing takes a much broader view and looks at how we might deal with this question. The report deals with the quota issue. Usually, when one mentions the word "quota", one puts it in italics and puts on one's suit of mail in anticipation of people saying: "Watch out. Stand back. We are not having this." The quota issue is dealt with very cleverly in this regard in the report. The quota referred to is not a quota of outcome. It does not determine how many or what percentage of women have to be elected. It is a quota of opportunity. That is a very clever device and one that should be given a real chance and supported. There are two points to be made in this regard. Those women who feel inclined to oppose this system should stand back, forget about their own circumstances and consider the fact that they have been successful in a system that is not woman-friendly in many ways. They should also look at how we need to make this happen. Why do we need to make it happen? I am not a great believer in creating huge structures to encourage greater participation. The Minister of State, Deputy Cuffe, and I differ slightly in that regard. I believe participation is a means to an end. There is bad decision-making where there is not a gender balance among the decision-makers.

I am a practical person in that regard. It is a question of participation being seen as a means to an end.

We need to consider other matters also. One of the problems with Parliament, apart from the fact that it is very much a male club and male-friendly, an environment in which I am very comfortable, is that its schedule is not attractive to women. We need to tell the media that may take an interest in this issue that the idea of parliamentarians being in Parliament five days a week is a lot of nonsense, anti-democratic and bad for decision-making. We need parliamentarians to be in Parliament for two and a half days. Meeting for two and a half long days would be more attractive to women than the current arrangement. I do not believe having a crèche in Parliament is very attractive if one is in an occupation in which one does not know whether one is going to finish at 5 p.m., 7 p.m., midnight or 1 a.m. If one was required to be in one's constituency for half the week and in Parliament for the other half, it would be a much more attractive proposition. We should consider this and take on the media commentators who present it as people not working. The last thing we need is the kind of parliament featured in other countries whose parliamentarians would deign to visit their constituencies every couple of months, as if to say to the little people, "Here I am, I am back again." We need to consider having a quota of opportunity for a limited period. Let us see how it would work, assess it and determine its outcome.

In five constituencies during the last general election there was not even a choice to vote for a woman. We do not want this to happen again. I am not attracted by the idea of someone looking at a ballot paper and saying he or she is going to vote for a woman, but the women who would stand for election would have a lot to offer and afford the voter a real opportunity in terms of diversity of representation and choice. We have tried many approaches. It cannot be true that decisions are better made by men only or any other gender.

I have faced this issue in various professions. In the teaching profession it is important that there be role models representative of our community, society and nation. This would involve a gender balance that would be more or less 50:50. We should strive towards meeting the objective of creating the opportunities to allow this to happen. That is the great value of the report in question. It does not tie people down and stipulate there must be a 50:50 ratio of men to women. I have always been unhappy with such stipulations. What we would be doing is creating a quota of opportunity to ensure parties nominated a certain number of people at all times, not to be restrictive but to afford a greater opportunity to participate with a view to having better decision-making. Voters would have greater opportunities when selecting candidates and a better climate for decision-making would be created in Parliament.

I support the report, the debate on which is very important. I would like to annoy people for a little longer, but I have run out of time. We need to address these issues.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Cuffe, and wish him every success in his new appointment

I am delighted this debate is taking place on the role of women in politics. I have not written a long speech. As spokesperson on justice issues, I could have led off on the last occasion, but I ceded ground to Senator McDonald who spoke very eloquently on the subject. It is important that women have their say in politics.

On the imposition of quotas, some of the points made by Senator O'Toole were interesting because while one can take a horse to water, one cannot make it drink it. I have one daughter and she has as much interest in politics as the man in the moon and believes I am crazy. She said that, when growing up, she hardly ever saw me and only saw me at funerals or meetings and that I was always away in Dublin or Cork County Hall. Her point was valid. She did not make it until she was about 16 years old, at which time it was probably too late for me take on the role expected of me.

In my area I have always encouraged women to get involved in politics. On Bandon Town Council there are four female councillors. Three of Fianna Fáil's four elected representatives are female, about which I am delighted. On Skibbereen Town Council Fianna Fáil has two of the nine elected representatives, one of whom is a young girl. On Bantry Town Council there has always been, at least in the past 20 years, one or two females from different parties. We have always encouraged the girls, or ladies, to become involved in politics. It is important that this be acknowledged.

There is a perception that politics is a man's world and that we are against the involvement of women in politics. That is far from the truth. In many cases I have found it almost impossible to get women to become secretaries or chairpersons of Fianna Fáil cummain. I have written to them and cajoled and begged them to do so. They probably find the lifestyle difficult. Politics is becoming a very tough career. If I had put the same number of hours and work into the legal profession as I have put into politics since joining Cork County Council in 1985, at which time I was a young solicitor, I would certainly be a far wealthier man today and I am not being facetious in any way in saying this. I would have a better lifestyle and have had a greater input into my family life when my children were growing up. It would be disingenuous of me to say otherwise.

Unfortunately, there is a public perception of politics to the effect that politicians are all crooks and gangsters. This applies across the board, although Fianna Fáil, being the party in power, may be hit hardest. It can be heard in the pub or at GAA matches. As with men, professional women who have spent five or six years in college and the possibility of pursuing a career with a guaranteed income or perhaps a guaranteed period in office think hard, twice and three times, about becoming involved in politics. I come from a family of 11 and have seven sisters — I was cowed down by seven girls. However, I do not believe any one of them would have got involved in politics. They all had a reasonably good education and some had to emigrate.

The perception that Parliament is an exclusively male club is wrong. Perhaps other parties have different experiences and, if so, I would like to hear about them. In 1981 I encouraged a lady to stand for election to the Dáil. She was the first lady in my party in my area to do so. She was placed on the ticket and I canvassed very hard for her, but she was unsuccessful. She emigrated subsequently and is now married in Paris or some other location in France. When I met her recently, she said that, in one sense, she was glad she had not been elected because she had made a life for herself in France.

If one considers the ancient political structures, including in England before democracy, one will note that women made their mark in politics right across the world. Women who participated in politics include Indira Ghandi and Margaret Thatcher in England, as well as various queens, including Queen Elizabeth, Queen Mary I, Queen Mary II and Queen Victoria. The United States came relatively close to having a female President elected on the last occasion which would have been an historic occasion. Perhaps it is believed in that country that it was not the right time for Ms Hillary Clinton to make it. Others will say that because she was so closely linked with Mr. Bill Clinton, it probably damaged her career. She now holds a senior political position in the United States.

I am delighted this debate is taking place. At our group meeting I asked the Leader not to stifle the debate but to allow it to roll over. This is the second day on which we have discussed women's participation in politics. When this very important debate concludes today at 1.30 p.m., 23 or 24 Senators, over one third of the Members of this House, will have participated in it. It is only right this debate should take place.

As many more speakers are offering, I will bring my remarks to a close. I have always encouraged the participation of women in politics. However, imposing quotas for the sake of doing so would not constitute an ideal system. I have been involved in politics since 1985 and I do not recall any occasion when Fianna Fáil's internal structures prevented or dissuaded female candidates from running or were used to oust such candidates at party conventions. Whenever a female member put her name forward for election to a town or county council or to Dáil Éireann, she was encouraged. This was due to the perception that a young female candidate can obtain the additional votes necessary to ensure she is elected before one of her male counterparts.

I am merely outlining my own little aguisín. My experience indicates that women are not disadvantaged when it comes to their involvement in politics. They have an extremely important role to play. I accept the system militates against them and that politics is a difficult job. Many women with good careers are not anxious to wade into the current quagmire in which politics finds itself. They perceive the difficulties involved and realise there is no guarantee that once they have won a seat, they will be re-elected. The constituency rivalries that exist among members of the same party give rise to difficulties for any candidate, male or female.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Cuffe. I also welcome the chair of the National Women's Council of Ireland and the representatives of the Irish Women Lawyers Association who are in the Gallery.

As a former member of a 26-seat county council — I was one of two females who served on that body at the time — I am only too well aware that women are underrepresented at local government level. As someone who worked as a midwife in the health service for over 20 years, I am well aware of the anti-social nature of that job. Politics is also an anti-social profession and, in that context, I often feel I am missing a wife.

This debate is truly historic. It is the first occasion on which the issue of women's participation in politics has ever been placed on the agenda of either House of the Oireachtas. I welcome the fact we are debating the report on women's participation in politics which was published by the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights in October 2009 and which was authored by my esteemed colleague, Senator Bacik. I am glad its emergence led to the holding of this debate in the House.

The context for this debate is important. It has been suggested the Celtic tiger was really a Celtic tigress, particularly in light of the fact that the increased numbers of women in the labour force during the boom years played such an important role in generating increased wealth for everyone. Despite this increase in numbers, women in the workplace continued to be restricted by the existence of glass ceilings and also continued to bear the largest share of domestic and child care responsibilities. That is why I referred earlier to my needing a wife. Serious discrimination remains in the workplace in respect of unequal pay and the lack of child care facilities. However, despite these obstacles, the numbers of women in paid work increased dramatically during the 1990s and early 2000s. In contrast, the number of women in the Dáil fell. Further action must be taken to encourage more women to enter politics.

We can work with our current electoral system in this regard and there would not be a need to change from our proportional representation-single transferable vote, PR-STV, system in order to increase the number of women elected to councils or to the Oireachtas. What we need to do is address existing and highly restrictive candidate selection procedures operated by all of the political parties which prevent women from becoming candidates. The key reform required to address this is the establishment of a legislative quota system that would require all political parties to select a certain minimum proportion of candidates of each gender. Without such a system, political parties will not alter their procedures voluntarily.

All of the parties represented on the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights supported the recommendation relating to legislative quotas. Like all the members of that committee, I wish to express my support for quotas. It is, however, important to emphasise, as Senator O'Toole did, the type of quota model recommended in Senator Bacik's report. The model in question relates to a very limited "opportunity quota". The word "quota" sometimes conjures an image of reserved seats, with a quota of seats in a parliament being reserved for women. This is not what the joint committee of which Senator Bacik is a member recommended, although it is the model used in some countries, such as Rwanda where 56% of representatives in parliament are women. We do not advocate this model, partly because it would give rise to difficulties under European law. We are suggesting a much more limited form of quota, namely an opportunity rather than an outcome quota.

An opportunity quota merely requires that political parties put forward a minimum number of candidates of each gender. This system is operated in Belgium, where no more than two thirds of candidates can be of one gender, thereby placing a cap on the number of men a party may select. This does not restrict voter choice but it would increase the number of female candidates available for election. A quota does not make an imposition on voters, it simply recognises the reality of the political parties as the gatekeepers in the context of deciding who should go forward to face the electorate. These gatekeepers must be subjected to certain rules in respect of the number of candidates they select. Legislation to deal with this matter must be introduced as a matter or urgency. The Minister of State takes great interest in debates of this nature and listens to what is being said. That face is very much appreciated.

On International Women's Day, 8 March 2009, the Labour Party's leader, Deputy Gilmore, introduced a Private Member's Bill, the Electoral (Gender Parity) Bill 2009, which would have required political parties to select a minimum number of women candidates. This Bill or a version of it is essential to ensure change. Experience elsewhere shows that unless some legislative quota is introduced, the position will not change. The level of female representation in the Dáil has remained stuck at between 13% and 14% for a long period. The position in the Seanad, where the figure stands at 22% — 13 females out of a total of 60 Members — is better. However, the ranking on which we are measured is based on lower or, where the system is not bicameral in nature, single houses of parliament.

The measures put forward by the joint committee should apply not only in respect of Dáil elections but also to Seanad, local and European elections. Female representation in Europe fell from 38% to 25% following the most recent election. A system of financial penalties based on the French model should be imposed in the legislation, which should have an in-built sunset clause which would lapse once targets were met. The latter is an extremely reasonable proposal.

When contributing to this debate, Senator Bacik put forward a concrete plan of action for the Minister of State, Deputy Mary Alexandra White, to adopt on foot of the joint committee's report. I support the Senator in asking the Minister of State to commit to taking certain actions. First, I ask her to propose a timeline in respect of adopting the legislation to which I refer. We are aware that such legislation has worked in other European countries, particularly Belgium and Spain, where the rate of representation, which in 1990 was more or less equal to that which obtained here, has increased to such an extent that these nations are now ranked 12th and 13th in the world, respectively.

My second request is that the Minister of State should convene a meeting of the general secretaries of all political parties. This meeting could be facilitated by the National Women's Council and at it the recommendations contained in Senator Bacik's report, many of which are aimed at them, could be put to the general secretaries. The Minister of State could ask that they revert to her within two or three months in order that a further meeting to determine what progress has been made could be held.

The Oireachtas crèche is a useful facility and has great symbolic importance. However, it may be more useful to city-based parliamentarians.

I wish to request that the photograph taken at the Oireachtas women's event held in December 2008 be displayed in Leinster House. It was very telling that on the occasion of Countess Markievicz's 90th anniversary and as a result of a special allowance made by the then Ceann Comhairle, Deputy O'Donoghue, we were allowed to hold an event relating to women in the Dáil Chamber. That was very much appreciated and the occasion in question incorporated a really historic element.

We often talk about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and what a wonderful dancer he was but it must be remembered she did everything he did but she did it backwards and in high heels.

I also welcome the Minister of State and thank the Leader for the debate. It is the first time that women's participation in politics has been debated in either House of the Oireachtas, which is significant. I commend Senators Bacik and McDonald on the work they invested in this report, which is thought provoking and provides the basis for this significant debate to take place for the first time.

I refer to participation in politics generally. Like Senator O'Donovan, I believe politics is in crisis and it is a struggle to get new people involved, regardless of whether they are women, because politics is becoming an increasingly unattractive career option. There are many reasons for that. We are held in low regard, there is a great deal of cynicism about politics and, as other colleagues said, it is a tough life requiring a considerable commitment. In examining why there is so much cynicism about politics and why it is held in such low regard, it is likely that equitable participation could play a role in improving the perception of politics given that the deficit in equitable participation has had a role in the crisis facing politics. Politics is important but little else impacts on people's day-to-day lives as much as the decisions taken by politicians.

It is regrettable that Ireland continues to languish at the bottom of the international league table when it comes to women's participation in politics. I was honoured to be the female Oireachtas representative at an interparliamentary union conference a few years ago. Every country was required to have a female representative because, without one, we were not allowed to vote at the conference. A table was produced and it was embarrassing to find Ireland was ranked lower than Iran and Iraq in regard to female participation in politics, despite our perception of ourselves as being an equitable country. We were behind other countries that do not have a good reputation on women's issues.

We should ask ourselves whether it is good to seek to address women's participation in politics and what it has to offer. There is a significant body of research around the world which has shown everything has improved greatly in countries that have generated a higher level of female participation in politics. There has been a shift in the legislative focus as a result of the increased participation of women and this benefits everyone in practice. For example, the Nordic countries have experienced a shift in legislative practice to reflect a greater focus on social justice, education, family and gender issues. It is in everyone's interest to have better and balanced decisions and that can only happen if there is more equitable, gender-based debate on legislation. Debates benefit from being better informed by varied experience and perspectives. That is what female participation in politics can bring, everyone will benefit and they should support that. It is a win-win scenario for everyone.

The report mentions setting a specific target for the number of female candidates. I would issue a word of warning on that. If we compare what has happened around the world where a move has been made to run a greater number of women candidates with Ireland, it is frequently the case that a token woman is placed on a party ticket to run for seats that they never have a chance of winning, but this allows parties to say afterwards that they had an increased representation of women. That issue arose following the 2007 general election. There were never as many women candidates as there were that year, yet a reduced number of women were elected. It was not only because people did not vote for them but when an analysis of the constituencies in which women were given the opportunity to run was conducted, it was concluded none of them was expected to take a seat. Women were, therefore, asked to run on the ticket even though the possibility of taking a seat did not exist.

It was interesting that when New Labour took power in the UK, Tony Blair followed a model through which he knew the seats his party had a good chance of winning and the Labour Party made a decision that a proportion of the constituencies should have female candidates. As a result, his party achieved one of the greatest increases in female representation in the developed world in a single election.

The report also mentions the need for support networks. I was a little unsure about all-women networks and support groups. My experience in Fianna Fáil is the women's group. I was often struck that we would be upset if a men's group was established and we were not allowed to join it. It was proposed to abolish the women's group and I was not sure about my feelings in this regard. I was approached by an older woman who said it was important that we would not abolish the group. She said that, when she joined her local cumann, she never had the confidence to speak at a meeting but, having joined the women's group, she had the opportunity to get involved in policy development. Through that forum she found the confidence to return to the cumann to tell members what we had been doing because it became competence-based confidence. I felt afterwards that if confidence was the one thing a women's support network could engender in other women to come forward with ideas, that alone made it a valuable network that would be worth retaining.

The report also makes a recommendation regarding funding incentives to encourage women to become involved in political parties. Politics costs money and is an expensive business, whether one is a man or a woman. I would not like us to move to a point where if people do not have access to funding, they cannot get involved in politics. While I was very fortunate in my career to have been able to access bank loans to fund my interest in politics, that was only because I was fortunate to have a job which facilitated that. We do not want to move to the stage of people being unable to become involved in politics owing to a lack of access to funding.

As difficult as it is for politicians generally to get funding, especially if one must rely on loans, it is even more difficult for women to access loans. I was very struck by my early experience when I was looking for credit and the bank manager said, in effect, that since I was a young woman, there was a chance I would get married, have children and not be able to make the repayments, so they could not extend me the loan. He was only saying what we know everyone else was thinking, so I believe there is an issue around funding. I do not know the answers because there are so many demands on a very limited public purse. That being so, we are talking about funding democracy to try to ensure we get the best possible people to come forward and not relegate political representation to individuals with access to other supports.

I compliment the Oireachtas education programme. A couple of recommendations in the report refer to female role models and education. The education being promoted by the Houses of the Oireachtas, whereby Members, along with other public representatives, have been visiting secondary schools, has been very positive. This plays a significant role in education, and the feedback I have received from all-girls schools in particular indicates that when female Members of the Oireachtas have been able to attend, this has sent a very powerful message to secondary school girls that challenges the male politician stereotype. That is very welcome and the personnel behind the Oireachtas education programme are to be congratulated.

This is an interesting opportunity to speak about women's participation in politics. I compliment Senator Ivana Bacik as the rapporteur on the report which I read some time ago. This debate is an opportunity for me to discuss why I got into politics, why I believe women's participation in politics is important, the barriers they face and, perhaps, some ways to address them.

I got into politics because I believed I had a contribution to make. All we have in life is time and I do not believe in wasting it. If I believed my time in politics was wasted, I would not be in this House. My intentions were very good at the outset, but I have definitely experienced barriers. Some of those arose in the most unexpected places, from men, women, parties and even in this House.

I was fortunate in that my family gave me a good education and that I have been able to adopt two children. In doing that, I wanted to give something back. That was a major reason for me to consider politics. I believe in change for the better and, having been a teacher and subsequently a lecturer, I believed the right area for me to make a contribution was in education. For five or six years before I came into this House, when I had decided to run for politics first and got a good thrashing, in 2002, a bad year for Fine Gael——

That was not a great year to stand for Fine Gael.

——I made a decision to resign my teaching post and set up a business to be able to commit myself to politics. Previously, I had been travelling three hours a day from Galway to my place of work in Mary Immaculate College in Limerick. My constituency was Galway West, spanning west from my home in Oranmore, right through the city to Connemara and the islands. I knew I could not continue to be a lecturer in Limerick and run for politics, so I made a very significant decision and gave up a great deal. I set up a business and was elected to this House with some expertise in education and enterprise as well as a strong sense of social justice. Those are the issues I am committed to in politics. My aim is to do good by my county and country.

I did not enter the Seanad initially with a strong interest in local politics, rather a desire for change for the better nationally in terms of the direction of education and the development of creativity in children on foot of the gaps I had perceived in the system. I had been a county councillor en route, had learned a good deal about local politics and came to realise I had much to contribute locally.

All politicians, not just women, face a dilemma, namely, whether to be a parish pump representative or a national politician. There is a flaw in the electoral system because while this recession will not be fixed by parish pump politics, the electoral system is such that, unless local issues are taken care of, the politician will not be elected and will not have the opportunity to contribute in a national forum. As well as a debate on women in politics, we also need to look at the electoral system if we are to be serious about giving leadership. People have lost faith in politics and in the Government.

The other day in an all-boys' school, St. Joseph's Patrician College in Galway, or "the Bish", as it is known locally, a young boy asked me whether I believed our leaders in Government were insulted by the fact that advertisements were being taken out on television to say, in effect, "Get thinking and come up with ideas to save your country." I said I did not believe they were being insulted. The teacher intervened to say that he believed they were being insulted because that had never happened before.

I always believe there should be room for creativity. While I do not beat the drum for women in politics, none the less I am a woman in politics. What are the reasons for increasing women's participation? It is valid that women should have a strong role in politics since we make up 51% of the population, yet our level of participation is something like 13%, less than sub-Saharan Africa. Senator Corrigan said there were more women in politics in Iran and Iraq than in Ireland. Those are countries in which women are being put down and have to wear a burqa. Let us get a grip.

Why should women be involved in politics? The life experience of women is different. This is seen in the way we profile issues such as breast cancer, the need for BreastCheck, ovarian cancer, cervical smears, etc. We have had debates in the Seanad on stem cell research and, while men have a valid viewpoint, they will never experience the emotions women have in these areas. It is a different type of experience and we should embrace this, cherish it and say it is welcome. Women have a different viewpoint. Our brains and bodies are made differently. Let us take the male brain versus the female brain. On the left side of the brain is the language centre, and men have a very small section compared with women. The Senator is about to say perhaps that is why women like to talk more.

Let us have no discrimination against men, please.

No. I am saying there are actual biological differences between men and women. They give rise to different viewpoints and to a richness, beauty and fun. I believe the world would be far more boring without us.

The report brings out well the barriers women face in politics. It mentions child care, cash, confidence and culture. There is also a big barrier to being a woman in politics. While one may have strong views in one's own right as a citizen, to be a woman in politics presents a different challenge because — loath as I am to say it — one is in a man's world and surrounded largely by men. I found myself at cumann meetings at which I was the only female present. This was a frequent occurrence seven or eight years ago. The men present at the meetings would turn around to face the other men because it was so unusual for a woman to be there that they did not know how to behave. It takes much courage for a woman to enter the world of politics.

Child care is a tough issue. The day on which I first stood at a convention was the first birthday of my youngest child, but I did not dare to mention this because people would have whispered about why I was not at home minding my child. On one occasion when my husband was canvassing on my behalf in 2002, he was asked who was minding my children. His response was that I had a family, as well as a husband. This is an example of the culture that must be overcome by women.

In terms of making the Houses a more friendly place for women to be successful——

The Senator has one minute left.

——we need to consider the suggestion that Parliament sit two and a half days each week. In addition, on occasion, women should be able to participate in debates using video-conferencing facilities. We should not always have to be here in the House in order to participate, as there are means of doing this. There should occasionally be opportunities to vote remotely, with appropriate validation. While visiting Mountjoy Prison doing research for the Oireachtas education report which is being published next Tuesday, I missed a number of divisions in the House. I was obliged to apply months beforehand for clearance to enter the prison. There are plenty of examples of such difficulties. Cash is an issue, as is confidence because, as I said, we are largely in a male world, but the greatest issue is culture.

In terms of achieving a better gender balance in politics, I am not convinced quotas are the solution. The one area in which quotas will make a difference to women is the selection process. However, it is tough enough being a woman in politics without accusations being made that one is a quota candidate. The solution might be to use a combination of figures for quota purposes; for example, women could receive a 20% leg-up at the convention, but the rest would be based on an open vote. I would say the same about list-based electoral systems. It should not be all list-based and it should not be all democracy-based; we should consider a combination of the two.

The Leader of the House is a male, as are the Cathaoirleach and the Leas-Chathaoirleach. The Leader has been corrected in the House on his use of language, for example, by Senator Eugene Regan. How one speaks to women is important. On many occasions, like others, I have felt put down by the Leader. Within the last two weeks he mentioned that he had seen me on "Tonight with Vincent Browne" and that I was "very meek". Would he have said that to a man? He would never have used the word "meek".

Of course, I would. Every human is equal.

It has a sexist connotation and is a put-down. It is not healthy. We are talking about women's participation in politics.

I ask the Senator to conclude.

Let us change the way we talk to each other and behave, for the sake of everybody. I do not make disparaging remarks about the Leader.

This is only a beginning; I hope the debate will continue. I congratulate Senator Bacik on her courage. Women have a long way to go in Irish politics, but this House must show leadership.

I wish to share my time with Senator Dearey.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the new Minister of State, Deputy Mary White, and wish her well. I congratulate her on her appointment, which is a dream come true. I know she will excel in her portfolio. She is most welcome to the House.

I must reply to the remarks made by the last speaker. I treat every Member, male or female, equally in this House. I am proud to say I have always done so. I am the first Leader of either House to have allowed the issue of women in politics to be debated on the floor of the House.

I have worked well for many years with one of the great women of our time, Deputy Mary O'Rourke, in my local area. I also worked well with Máire Geoghegan Quinn who was the first woman to be appointed to the Cabinet since Countess Markiewicz. I also worked with former President Mary Robinson who started her political career in this House. The first lady Tánaiste the country had, Deputy Mary Harney, also started her political career in this House and I have had a close working relationship with her throughout my political life. I have known many excellent women who have made an enormous contribution to public life during the years.

I worked with former Deputy Síle de Valera, an outstanding public representative, as well as the Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport, Deputy Mary Hanafin, and the first female Fianna Fáil Tánaiste since 1926, Deputy Mary Coughlan. In my local area I have worked with the former Minister of State Deputy Mary Wallace, as well as Deputy Áine Brady and my colleague in the constituency of Longford-Westmeath, Mae Sexton, who represented the area as a Dáil Deputy when I was a Deputy between 2002 and 2007.

She may again do so in the future.

I also worked closely with colleagues such as the former Minister for Justice, Nora Owen, and Niamh Bhreathnach who made great contributions when in government. I have worked with my Fine Gael colleague from the midlands, Deputy Olwyn Enright, as well as her father, in the interests of the constituents of the area.

Previously, 22% of the membership of this House were women; the figure is now 20%. The 12 female Members are Senators Ormonde, Feeney, Mary White, McDonald, Prendergast, Healy Eames, McFadden, now my local colleague, O'Malley, Corrigan, Fitzgerald, the Leader of the Fine Gael group in the House, Bacik and Keaveney. These Members make tremendous contributions on the floor of the Upper House.

There is a regulation in the Fianna Fáil Party that at least 20% of the membership of the officer board in each cumann, comhairle ceantair and comhairle Dáil cheantair must be female. This has been the case for a number of years. We are doing everything we possibly can to encourage greater female participation in politics. As Senator Corrigan said in her excellent contribution on her experiences and challenges in getting off the ground as a female politician, it is not an easy profession in which to participate; with no guaranteed tenure, it is extremely unattractive to many.

If one is not motivated by the urge to give of one's time to public service, my advice would be to forget about it because the motivating factor must be to do good for one's parish, community, county and constituency. That is what motivates most of the membership of Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann. They are men and women who are privileged to represent their constituents in the Houses. In the minds of most the definition of a good politician, be it a man or woman, is someone who can bring the most to their area in terms of schools or other infrastructure. Only a small percentage are fortunate enough to serve in Cabinet as Ministers or as Ministers of State. Only a small percentage of those who are elected have that privilege.

This is probably the first of many discussions we will have in the House on how we can encourage women to participate in politics more fully. Let me give an example. In the 2002 general election the constituency of Westmeath had seven candidates, four of whom were women. However, the electorate chose three men to represent it. It corrected this on the last occasion after the commission had transferred part of my constituency to the constituency of Meath, but be that as it may, I can honestly say I have worked very well with Deputy Mary O'Rourke who has served her constituency outstandingly well. I look forward to working with her in the future in the interests of our constituents. Who the electorate decides should represent the constituency for the coming period has never been a problem. As democrats, we have always accepted its decision.

I compliment Senator Bacik on her publication. I have always supported her calls and those of all female Members of the House for debates on what are considered to be urgent matters to be put before Members for their consideration. I look forward to assisting all of my colleagues on a daily and weekly basis in that regard. I acknowledge colleagues who were elected to serve on local authorities, including Councillor O'Donovan from Tipperary who is in the Visitors Gallery. He is most welcome.

The Minister of State, Deputy White, is welcome back to the House.

I found the story Senator McDonald's told on the previous occasion riveting. It was about her progress through her own party and how her view had changed because she did not want women to go through what she had gone through to achieve what she had achieved.

There is much in this debate on which individual parties should reflect. In my constituency group three of the four seats my party holds throughout the county of Louth are held by women. There are many other women within the group and if I do not see them coming through in years to come, I will be asking serious questions about the nature of our group, how it operates and the reason they are not emerging. We must also use this opportunity to reflect on our own structures.

I wish to expand on an issue on which Senator Corrigan touched, namely, the way in which the theme of politics changes when women's participation increases. The Senator spoke about how the social agenda had been moved forward by the greater participation of women, but I believe the economic agenda would also change if there was greater participation by women in politics. I say this because so much of what is economically valuable is not acknowledged or measured within our political discourse. I owe a debt to the report put together by the policy officer who has identified four areas within the economy in which women work; of the four, two are unmeasured — work in the home and work in the sex trade. These issues will remain unaddressed in many respects until the analysis and desire within the political system become sufficiently strong and incisive and the issues involved become sufficiently important to the political establishment. I see many failings in that regard.

Another interesting issue I came across in the context of the debate on the Female Genital Mutilation Bill was the way the asylum system appeared to favour male applicants for asylum over female applicants. It is not gender balanced. It does not recognise women's experience in their home countries as valid when it comes to the issue of potential persecution on their return home; therefore, their ability to achieve success in the processing of asylum applications is reduced. That is another area in which outcomes could change with the greater participation of women in politics.

The point I am trying to make is that political priorities change with the greater participation of women. How we can get to that point has been discussed at length. I wanted to outline some of the potential positive consequences if we could get to the point where we had greater numbers of women making legislative decisions on behalf of women and men in this country. Politics remains a macho world. Another area in which I would like to see change is that of the funding, corporate funding in particular, of politics. It also discriminates against women's participation in politics because it is a boys' club. It is virtually Masonic in certain instances in that the funding of politics is controlled and regulated, so to speak, by a small group of men. My perception — perhaps I am wrong — is that women do not want to be part of this world and generally are not part of it. Another consequence of the greater participation of women in politics would be a reconfiguring of the way politics is funded to allow women to participate in an equal way. I would welcome such an outcome.

I welcome the Minister of State and congratulate her on her appointment. I have not had the opportunity to do so in the House since her appointment, but I am pleased to see her in the ministerial chair today.

I will restrict my comments to the second report published last October by my colleague, Senator Bacik, on women's participation in politics. Before I do so, I wish to make some comments on my experience of female involvement in politics in my area of County Meath. In the last general election in 2007 I was struck by the fact that in one of the two constituencies, Meath West, of the ten candidates who had put themselves forward to the electorate for election, not one was female. That clearly illustrates something is wrong with our system that must be addressed at a fundamental level, through legislation if necessary, and it is a position that is no longer tenable. The position was not much better in the constituency of Meath East. Of the 11 candidates, four were female, which constitutes a higher representation but still not equal. It is an issue we must examine.

In that regard, the report published by Senator Bacik has come up with some good conclusions and recommendations. I will deal with four of them, the first of which concerns child care. One of the findings of the committee was that the long hours involved in politics were not conducive to facilitating the involvement of women. I know this to be true, for example, from the times at which party political meetings are held, something of which I am sure the Minister of State is well aware. Last night, for instance, I attended a meeting at 9.30 which continued until just after 11 p.m. Anybody trying to raise a family while involved in politics must make a simple choice. Which do they put first? Of course, family life must come first, but we must examine the way all of us involved in the various parties organise our business because meetings that finish at 11 p.m. do not allow the involvement of those with families.

Another issue we must examine is that of child care supports. It is clear such supports are inadequate as provided within the system. This Parliament is not family friendly. We must make changes to rectify this and make it easier for people to participate. One measure we could take is providing more teleconferencing facilities. One of the benefits of the eruption in Iceland will be that more people will use videoconferencing and, perhaps, that is the direction we should take. It would help overcome travel difficulties and help people become more involved without having to leave their homes and families.

A second key recommendation of the report concerned pay. The authors found that, on average, women received 22% less pay than their male counterparts. This puts people at a disadvantage when it comes to running for election. Senator Healy Eames made a valid point when speaking about funding. We need to look at that. We could consider providing some funding for women candidates through the national system or through a voluntary system whereby each party would provide more funding to female candidates to help them overcome any pay imbalance that might exist.

We also need to look at the area of confidence and we need to encourage more people into politics through head hunting. I had experience of this in County Meath in the lead-up to the previous local elections. Before the local elections in Meath last year, only three councillors out of 29, just 10%, were female. There was something fundamentally wrong in that. As the director of elections for my party in Meath, I like to think we went out of our way to try to rectify the imbalance. In conjunction with my colleague, Senator Bacik, we head hunted people and found an excellent candidate, Eileen Drew, who agreed to run for us in the Navan electoral area. We also approached people such as Niamh McGowan for the Dunshaughlin area. In all, we ran more female than male candidates in Meath for the elections. We chose well, got good candidates, and out of four Labour Party members on Meath County Council, three of them, 75%, are women. This is fantastic. In terms of the proportional share of seats, we have the biggest representation of women. This has helped to change the overall representation of women in Meath and we now have nine females out of 29 councillors, as opposed to three out of 29 before the previous elections.

This is a step in the right direction but it is only achieved by finding good candidates and putting them forward. This means parties and directors of elections must be proactive, find people and convince them to run. They must convince them also that they will be able to do a good job. People are often put off by the idea of politics because of the bad press it gets. They worry they will not be able to juggle the balls. The parties must provide them with confidence. They must also provide a commitment and ensure people will be on hand to help when issues arise such as, perhaps, not being able to go to meetings because of a lack of child care. They must commit to doing their best to move meetings towards more child-friendly times. This might help convince people to run who might otherwise be lost to the body politic.

The final area on which I would like to focus is on the culture that exists in society. One of the recommendations that arises relates to role models in schools. I am aware there is an education programme being run from the Office of the Ceann Comhairle which encourages both Senators and Deputies to visit schools to speak to pupils. We need to see female Members visiting schools to convince girls that politics is a worthwhile profession and to encourage them to become involved. I have two suggestions for the Government. First, it should introduce, as soon as possible, the gender parity Bill produced by the Labour Party. Second, some time ago a photograph was taken of all living previous and current female Members. Would the Minister of State be able to organise for that photograph to be exhibited on the walls of this House?

I wish to add some comments to this important debate on increasing women's participation in politics. I did the same recently in Strasbourg where the Council of Europe debated two reports on this issue, one concerning women in politics and the other concerning women's role in conflict and conflict resolution, an issue which is related to our debate. I have been pondering the issues of child care and pay. I may not be flush with money but I would not consider it a major issue and child care is not an issue for me. The main issue for me with regard to the role of women is the culture that exists. A significant difference I already see in this debate is that more men have spoken than did in the Council of Europe debate. In our last debate in the Council of Europe on the issue, only two men offered to contribute. Most of them were not even interested in contributing. The fact our debate was on a Tuesday at a prime time as opposed to Friday lunchtime or Friday afternoon was a big change.

I have been a Member of the Houses of the Oireachtas for 14 years and recognise how important it is that countries such as Ireland try to change the gender balance. At this stage in the process, we need to introduce positive discrimination. I used be a strong believer in the fact that the best person would always win but, unfortunately, that is not my experience. This is due to the culture. It is one thing to get through an election process to get on a ticket, but it is another thing to get elected. The Irish electoral psyche is not convinced that because 50% of the population is female, women have a role in developing policy, channelling discussion and producing legislation. They do not elect females.

Only 20% of candidates in the last election were women, so the electorate does not have the choice.

No interruptions, please.

I am speaking from personal experience. I look to the experience of the Women's Coalition in the North, which played a major role in the peace process. Every day women try to sort out rows in homes, etc. and have skills that are different. What happened to the Women's Coalition and where is it now? It is gone, although some of its members have important senior positions.

Senator O'Toole touched on the fact that the media want us to be in the Chamber five days a week. During my time teaching in England an election took place and when I asked 67 teachers in the staff room who their MP was, none of them could tell me for certain. The balance we have here, where we have half a life in the Oireachtas and half a life in our constituency where we can listen to our people, is an important aspect of our role. We are not just national legislators, but are legislating for our people. This aspect of the role applies also to politicians from the county councils. County council meetings might start in the morning and continue all day, but people want certainty on time. They want to know when the meeting will start and when it will finish. The starting and finishing time, especially for county councils, should be adhered to. The condensed short week of the Oireachtas suits the likes of me. I am here for a certain number of days and if we were confined to working from 9 to 5, what would I do from 5 in the evening untill 9 the next morning that would be constructive? The long working day suits me, but it might not suit Senator Bacik, because she wants to get home to the wee ones. This illustrates why the issue is so difficult.

The attitude of the outside world has an influence in this area. I am on the Council of Europe and have attended meetings and been able to contribute. I am only there because it threatened to throw us out because we had no female representative. We now have eight members, of whom I am the sole female, but we comply with the minimum requirements of gender equality. The same happened with the Inter-Parliamentary Union, IPU. We were going to get kicked out of that because we were not sending female representation. We need outside agencies to point out what is wrong and to tell us it is unfair not to have female representation. Fulfilling the minimum criteria does not meet national requirements and sends out a message to the electorate that politics is still a male-dominated area.

I will not rehearse my personal experience over the past 14 years, because it would be too dangerous to tell people what female representatives face. It is easier to say that the Women's Coalition dealt with men throwing chairs at them. That happened to someone else and I can say it happened. There is a long way to go with regard to the culture here and the acceptance of females. We can say they are treated as equals but, in reality, people do not even realise they are not treating females as equals in the real sense.

Many women are involved in community work. If we could get them to explain why they get involved in such work for such long hours and days but will not step into politics, we might find some answers. We must have women on the ballots. I do not subscribe to the idea that it must be a woman because a woman is better than a man. I do not believe that. However, the females who get involved in politics give their hearts and souls to it. I accept I am preaching to the converted here given that the majority of Members present are female but this is not something that will evolve naturally. I have watched and hoped. My party produced a report on women in politics 12 years ago but the Senator's report has found that the situation is getting worse, not better. The statistics are available but I will not quote them.

It has got worse since we published the report.

There is no doubt that women excel in politics, and it is not anti-man when one seeks to be pro-woman. However, the Senator used a particular phrase, which I cannot find to quote now, when she asked, in effect, when it would become illegal, immoral or illegitimate to advance Bills without incorporating the viewpoint of a proportion of women. The question of legislation embracing more than one perspective is terribly important.

There have been numerous reports. Which of the four females present has not responded to every student who has ever studied women in politics and who have asked them about the battles they have encountered? We have the reports and we know the issues. Action is needed now, not more reports. I do not know how all the difficulties will be balanced but we must start with this House and try to explain to people outside the House why women are needed in politics.

I am delighted to have spent a great deal of time listening to this debate. The contributions from all parties have been fascinating. There were heartfelt stories of how Members got to this House and, in some cases, of Members who were previously Members of the Dáil and how they did not get into the Dáil for many years. Members spoke of how we must make the path easier for women to take part in politics.

I will look back again at the contributions from all sides. Many common threads are emerging from what has been said. There is consensus on the need to increase women's participation in politics and speaker after speaker, male and female, stressed their commitment to this goal. As I mentioned previously, politics is the one field of gender equality in which women in Ireland have made no appreciable progress in the past 15 years, unlike their European counterparts. Women have advanced in all other areas of Irish society in this time period. The discussion in the Senate suggests that Senators would welcome steps, and quick steps, to address this deficit and to move towards more balanced representation in political decision-making.

In my opening statement, I mentioned that all the multilateral bodies strongly urge governments to work to a 40% threshold for women in political decision-making. The Government has ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, CEDAW. In so doing, the Government has committed itself to overcome discrimination in all areas, including politics. I will keep a close eye on this. It is in this context that I have agreed to chair the work of the national women's strategy sub-committee on women and decision making. I look forward to the work of this sub-committee. Women in politics is just one element of the work of the sub-committee, but it is an important element.

The sub-committee will review all previous work on the topic, including the report prepared by Senator Bacik. It will also review the steps taken in countries which have brought women to the fore in politics. Many of their women politicians have combined a political life and a family life. I cannot believe there are valid reasons that we cannot achieve the same successes in Ireland. I am hopeful the new sub-committee will have an opportunity to meet with a small number of focus groups, such as Deputies and Seanadóirí, who might be prepared to offer some practical experiences to guide its recommendations. I also hope the sub-committee will have an opportunity to engage with the political parties through their general secretaries and equality officers to find common ground on which they can collaborate to increase female involvement. I hope this happens very quickly.

Many Senators, particularly women Senators, stressed the difficulty of combining their work in the House with family life. A similar situation pertains in the Dáil. There is no automatic pairing for women Members who have just had a baby. One presumes there is no pairing arrangement for new fathers either. The European Union actively encourages member states to promote the sharing of family responsibilities to foster gender equality and women's opportunity to participate in economic life. It also actively promotes women's engagement in decision making. The Dáil and the Seanad should be models of good practice in this regard. Therefore, as a priority, Members of both Houses must work together to introduce more family friendly practices as soon as possible. Good practice recommends that women take a period of at least six weeks after childbirth to enable them to bond with their new arrival. Perhaps the two Houses can consider an automatic pairing for newly delivered mothers. Good practice also suggests that new fathers should play a supportive role after the arrival of a new baby. Perhaps we could consider a week's automatic pairing for a new father.

One issue on which there was less consensus was the role of quotas. Some speakers consider quotas to be detrimental and tokenist; others actively foster them. I thank Senator Mooney for drawing my attention to the report he prepared for the Council of Europe in 2004. There has been a significant body of further research from Strasbourg examining all the factors which can foster female advancement in politics. In addition, the All-Party Committee on the Constitution is examining electoral practices in Ireland at present. I will keep track of the contributions it receives. A number of Senators who spoke on this matter pointed to the long family traditions which had fostered their interest in politics. We must ensure that our political system is equally open and welcoming to highly motivated people — women and men — who may not have a long association with politics but have an interest in getting involved and can bring their many skills and opinions to the table for the better of all.

Women are better educated than ever. The number of women with primary degrees has increased by almost 150% since the 1996 census, while the number of male graduates has increased by just under 100%. As a result, women now make up 53% of our graduates. We must ensure we utilise the talents of all these women fully and in all facets of society. Another clear thread which emerged from this lengthy discussion is that much of the onus for the advancement of women in politics rests with all of us, both men and women, as active members of political parties and as active Members of the Seanad and Dáil. Together we must work for reform. We must press our respective parties to espouse reform and the greater involvement of women. We must actively encourage more women to step forward and engage with the political parties.

I was the first woman to be elected by the Carlow-Kilkenny constituency since the foundation of the State. I had to grind that seat out of granite with my bare hands. I do not want other women to have to work as hard as I did in 2007. It took me ten long years to be able to speak as a Deputy. I am anxious to encourage women and to share my experience with other women who have managed to get through the glass ceiling. I will actively promote that for as long as I am elected to the House.

We must be conscious too of the old stereotypes. When I was first elected a political representative said to me: "There are three things you need, Mary, when you get in. They are a stomach for pints, for late nights and long days, and a great appetite for fast food." I have learned about the long days but perhaps I can leave the others behind. That is the general gender stereotype. As Senator Hannigan said, late nights with late meetings do not contribute to good family life. It is detrimental to young women entering politics, particularly those with families. In response also to Senator Hannigan, I will ask the Captain of the Guard to find a space on a very prominent wall in the Houses of the Oireachtas to hang that wonderful photograph. I will ask him to enlarge it so we can see every person who gathered on that memorable day. Let it hang in an historic place for all to see the wonderful women who have contributed over the years in both Houses so we can look at that with a sense of pride and look forward to at least doubling those numbers.

I thank the Cathaoirleach and the Senators for the opportunity to make statements on this very important issue. The debate has advanced immensely my understanding of the broad range of issues which pertain to the challenge that is women's engagement in politics. I would be delighted to continue this dialogue in future and look forward to returning to the House to report on advancement in this important issue.

Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 3 p.m.