In April 2021, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee became the first female cabinet minister in Irish history to take paid maternity leave while in office. When Minister McEntee requested this maternity leave there were legal and constitutional questions over whether she, or any other female in office, could take paid maternity leave. The Irish Constitution, written over a century ago, did not consider the possibility that a female politician could be a minister. Although McEntee was eventually granted paid maternity leave, many women in Irish politics before her were not so lucky. In 2016, Fianna Fail TD Niamh Smyth was told to provide a “sick cert” after she gave birth to her first child. For this reason, she was forced to return to work just two weeks after giving birth. The fact of the matter is that currently in Ireland there are systematic barriers present that are discouraging women from running for election. As a result of these structural blockades, we do not have nearly enough women holding seats in the national government.
Ireland currently ranks 101st in the world for female representation in national government, falling behind countries such as Iraq, China, and Afghanistan. At present, just 22.5% of Ireland’s national parliament are women. The lack of elected women in Irish politics is ‘’significantly tarnishing’’ the global perception of Ireland as an inclusive and progressive society, CEO of Women for Elections, Caitríona Gleeson, has said. Currently Sweden has the highest number of national parliament seats held by women in Europe with a figure of 47%. In fact, Ireland lies in the pit of Europe’s rankings with Germany at 31.2%, Denmark at 39.7%, Belgium as 41.3%, to name just a few.
So why is it important to have more women in Irish government? Apart from the obvious reason of basic gender equality in society, there are countless benefits to having women in national government. A recent study published by The Global Institute for Women’s Leadership and Westminster Foundation for Democracy has outlined the importance of female political leaders to democracy and equality. The study has found that female political leaders are crucial for enhancing democratization and battling inequality in society.
“According to the extensive research presented in the study, women bring inclusive styles of leadership that have been found to be more democratic, co-operative, and inclusive. It has been indicated that female legislators’ impact on policy extends beyond just females and prioritises society as a whole.”
Female leaders tend to focus on society’s most vulnerable and prioritize their basic rights such as education, healthcare, and welfare. This has been explained by women’s considerable experience of inequality and deprivation, as well as the role traditionally played by women in looking after others. Although progress has been made in recent decades to improve gender equality in society, Ireland continues to seriously lack female political representation. There are still significant barriers to women’s equality of participation in politics, like the ones faced by Minister McEntee and Niamh Smyth.
A gender quota has been introduced for Dáil Éireann, pushing for 40% women for 2024. However, is a gender quota really the answer to the problem? Many female politicians in the past have argued against gender quotas, claiming that they are condescending and insulting. While serving as a TD in 2011 Joanna Tuffy of the Labour Party said that “when it comes to democracy, the ends do not justify the means. Gender quotas subvert democracy by making the ends more important than the means.” Perhaps the solution to Ireland’s lack of female political leaders is not to introduce patronising measures but to change the Irish Constitution, a constitution that in 2021 does not recognise that a female politician could ever be a leader.