Gender Quotas Are Not Enough

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 14.01.11.pngGender Quotas Are Not Enough (Not as long as masculinist culture prevails in Irish politics) – A Blog by Lucie Martin

The State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved. The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.” – Bunreacht na hÉireann (1937), Article 41.2


Given the role allocated to women by the Irish Constitution, which firmly prescribes that they be restricted to the private sphere of the household, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Irish women have the worst political representation in Western Europe (Mcculloch, 2012:134). The new gender quotas can hopefully help correct this imbalance, as they will be a strong financial incentive if enforced: parties who do not put forward at least 30% of female candidates will lose half their public funding (Oireachtas, 2012:33). But while a necessary first step, quotas alone cannot fix deeper problems facing female politicians: the ‘gender nomination bias’ identified by McElroy and Marsh (in Mcculloch, 2012:72) is only one symptom of a culture that harms women’s progression in politics. Indeed, in this blog post I argue that the masculinist political culture which led to the ‘dismal failure’ of voluntary quotas (Finn, 2015) also makes it difficult for legislative quotas to succeed by harming female candidates’ chances and silencing elected women. I also argue that the culture in the political sphere reflects that of Irish society, which prevents women from getting involved in politics to begin with.

Masculinist party culture and the ‘quota controversy’

While political parties have been compelled to put forward more female candidates, an increase in candidates doesn’t guarantee more women in the Dáil, due to party culture. 1 of 7 Parties can bypass quotas and play the role of ‘gatekeepers’ against women (Buckley, 2013:342), for example by running women for unwinnable seats or picking ‘weak’ female candidates (Hunt, 2015). Parties can also underfund women’s campaigns, which is problematic given the pay gap and resulting lower resources for women (Mcculloch, 2012:69). Most importantly, they encourage a sexual division of labour (Buckley, 2013:346) which prevents women from entering electoral politics and contributes to perceptions of female candidates as less credible. Party culture is indeed informed by gender stereotypes that favour male politicians (O’Malley in Connolly, 2013:376) as shown by the ongoing controversy over quotas, which have been decried as anti-democratic (McConnell 2015; Loughlin, 2015; Slater, 2015; Tuffy, 2011) despite stemming from democratic need for equal representation (Buckley, Galligan and McGing, 2013:8).

Backlash has been especially strong from the right: members of Fianna Fail have been the most vocal in their objections (McElroy and Keenan, 2015:4). Interestingly, feminist discourse has been coopted by critics of quotas, said to ‘set up a glass ceiling against men’ (Brabazon in Hunt, 2015) and to be condescending to women (Byrne, 2015). But this discourse fails to hide assumptions of women as underqualified and of seats held by female politicians as ‘concessions from men’, while paternalistic rhetoric asks ‘what self-respecting female’ would feel entitled to quotas (Byrne, 2015) and what it says about their ‘self-worth’, reminding of the ‘slut-shaming’ used to punish women who don’t stay in lane (Zeilinger, 2015). Female candidates’ credibility and electoral success could be harmed by this discourse, which touts quotas as an ‘absolute travesty’, while female candidates are pressured to rescind their candidacy in the name of ‘democracy’ (Cosgrove, 2015; McConnell, 2015): masculinist party culture prevents women from accessing the levelplaying field which quotas seek to ensure.

Lack of a ‘critical mass’ and women’s status in a ‘laddish’ Dáil

Party culture perseveres in the Dáil through its strong party discipline (Connolly, 2013:363), and undermines female TDs’ influence: the presence of women does not guarantee gender-balanced policy-making. 2 of 7 Once elected, a minority must reach a ‘critical mass’ of 30% to be influential (McGing in Mcculloch, 2012:79).

This is not to say that all female politicians are ‘for women’, that they have the same opinions or even that there are defined ‘women’s issues’, as these vary according to class, race and other factors. However, as argued by Phillips (1995:67-69), women are more likely to point out gendered issues such as childcare. This ‘critical mass’ might not be achieved in the next elections, due to reasons outlined in the first section. Women so far remain a silenced minority, which impacts the treatment of ‘women’s issues’ tremendously: one female TD recalls (qtd, McGing in Mcculloch, 2012) the difficulty of debating abortion when most other TDs are male and do not envisage what a crisis pregnancy is like. In addition, strong party discipline means women are unlikely to form cross-party alliances on gender issues, as shown by the British Parliament where an increase in female MPs failed to transform cultural norms (Lovenduski and Norris, 2003). This minority status allows the masculinist culture of the Dáil to be preserved: as denounced by female TDs, sexism is normalised and ‘laddish culture’ prevails among male TDs (qtd, in Regan, 2013b). This culture not only forces women to ‘adapt’, leading them to avoid working on women’s issues or being associated with the label ‘feminist’ to retain credibility (Mcculloch, 2012:78-79), but it also reinforces parties’ gendered hierarchy and sexual division of labour: women remain clustered in junior positions, and work mainly in ‘low-prestige’ committees associated with the private sphere (Connolly, 2013:371-375). ‘Add women and stir’ therefore seems to be an insufficient strategy, as masculinist culture dominates the Dáil and female TDs remain an overlooked minority. However, the political sphere is but a mirror of society at large, and of its attitude to gender.

Women and politics: a social issue rooted in Ireland’s Catholic legacy?

The ‘hostile reactions to women’ observed in the political sphere (Connolly, 2013:361) aren’t created in a vacuum. Rather, they reflect issues faced by Irish society at large, where a narrow view of women supported by the Catholic Church persists and contributes to women’s reluctance to enter politics. A longstanding authority in Ireland, the Catholic Church has strongly influenced gender relations and women’s political participation (Buckley, Galligan and McGing, 2013:4-5). Many current government positions reduce women to a maternal role, in 3 of 7 accordance with Catholic dogma which holds the Virgin Mary as a model for all women (Horgan, 2001): the Irish Constitution (1937) uses ‘women’ and ‘mothers’ interchangeably, the Church has been deeply involved in the upkeep of Ireland’s ‘strictest abortion laws in Europe’ (Regan, 2013a; Stensvold, 2015:156), and public childcare remains scarce (Barry and Sherlock, 2008:2). Ireland’s Catholic legacy has also impacted political participation in more pervasive ways: Mcculloch (2012:77-78) has found a significant negative relationship between religiosity and women’s political participation, including in Ireland which has the highest levels of religiosity and lowest levels of female political representation in Western Europe. Irish women, and women from Catholic European countries, have also been less likely to vote or to engage in political discussions than their peers from Protestant countries (Inglehart, 1981), where key religious leaders have historically regarded women in more egalitarian ways. In addition, while tremendous change has been observed in the last thirty years regarding social attitudes to gender, mainly due to an increase in secularity and consequent increase of female workforce participation (Fine-Davis, 2015:189), ideas about gender roles remain: Fine-Davis found that a majority of men think that some men feel threatened by women’s advancement at work (2015:198) and that this may be related to the idea of women ‘taking men’s jobs’, an idea echoed in the ‘quota controversy’ as the quotas have been argued to make it more ‘difficult’ for young, ambitious men in politics (Hand, 2015).


Quotas, although a necessary first step, will not single-handedly result in genderbalanced politics. Party culture promotes a perception of women as less qualified than men, while ‘laddish culture’ and strong party discipline in the Dáil contribute to women remaining a silenced minority and working mostly on ‘private sphere’ issues. This masculinist culture in politics stems from wider attitudes to gender roles in Irish society: although social change has been radical in the last three decades, ideas about appropriate behaviour for men and women remain and sustain low levels of female political participation. This is arguably partly due to a Catholic legacy that promotes a view of women as primarily meant for motherhood, which adds yet another barrier to women’s political participation. 4 of 7 In order to change the culture of Irish politics, action must therefore be taken, beyond the ‘add women and stir’ approach of gender quotas which, while necessary, is insufficient on its own. Some practical solutions can encourage female candidates and stifle the ‘laddish culture’ denounced by female TDs. For example, strictly fixed debating times in the Dail can help prevent long hours for parents of both sexes, and improvements in the provision of public childcare can help relieve female politicians’ time and funding burdens, while supporting progressive ideas about womanhood, motherhood and gender roles. In the longer term, women’s rights activism and mentorship programmes can also help tackle the male-dominated culture of Irish politics – but as evidenced in this blog post, achieving gender equality won’t be easy nor go uncontested.



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Lucie Martin is a final year undergraduate student in UCD, majoring in Economics, Politics and International Relations. After graduation she hopes to further study (and one day act upon) issues related to gender and European politics.


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