Gender gap in politics: Inherent structural bias or a gender divergence in life choices?

According to data published by the World Bank, Ireland has fewer women represented in government than Sudan, Mozambique and Rwanda. Female representation in the Dail stands at a paltry 27%, despite women making up half of the population.

On the face of it, there seems to be some insidious patriarchal conspiracy afoot, depriving roughly half of female politicians their right to participate in government. This simplistic reading of statistics is often presented in the media without context, thereby leading those who simply read headlines to believe our society is characterised by systemic, gender-based oppression.

According to a 2011 peer-reviewed article published in the Journal of Adolescence entitled ‘Gender Differences in Youths’ Political Participation’ compiled by a team of five sociologists, ‘a gender gap in political engagement’ does still exist. No-one will ever refute this fact.

That being said, the article goes some way towards assessing the differences in how young men and women become politically active, thereby offering an alternative theory as to why there is such a gender based discrepancy when it comes to political representation.

For example, a 2008 Briggs study concluded that young men were more likely to vote in a general election than their female peers. Young men were also more likely to research politics online.

This does not mean to say that men are better-adapted, or more naturally inclined towards being political, perhaps it is decades of structural reinforcement that has led men and women to this particular juncture. Indeed, the aforementioned article does intimate that there is a possibility men and women are merely conforming to pre-decided social roles when it comes to politics.

Either way, social roles are constantly adapting. We have completely eradicated the male-over-female dichotomy – it will however take time for these social changes to manifest as political change.

Anyone who tells you men are still in the habit of mercilessly oppressing women simply has not consulted the data objectively. In the US, for example, there are no male-specific scholarships for college despite the fact that women make up over 57% of college attendees. If men are still attempting to structurally subjugate women, we are doing an awful job of it.

Quotas are often thrown around as a means of redressing the lack of female political participation in Ireland. Indeed, the Electoral (Political Funding) Act of 2012 allows for the government to withdraw funding for political parties who do not field at least 30% female candidates. Is this just?

NUI Galway introduced a similar measure in response to the controversy surrounding Dr Micheline Sheehy Skeffington v NUI Galway. In this case, Dr Sheehy Skeffington applied for a promotion to senior lectureship at NUI Galway and successfully proved that she was denied promotion on the basis of gender (and on other factors). While Dr Sheehy Skeffington clearly had an arguable case, it could be said the college’s panicked reaction was less than adequate.

In response to this, the college introduced quotas. From this point on, all committees will be made up of at least 40% women. This is fundamentally illogical. Say if 75% of the best qualified candidates for a particular committee were female, this development has the effect of capping their participation and introducing less qualified male members simply because we need the perspective of someone who uses a different bathroom. The idea that not hiring on merit will somehow assuage the problem of not hiring on merit is completely skewed – a knee-jerk response to negative public relations.

Quotas are generally only mentioned when it is for some advantageous position. We never hear calls for 50% of all coal-miners and bin-collectors to be female, yet these positions are characterised by male domination in the same way that politics traditionally was.

Mandatory gender quotas should be viewed as an insult to all. The best person should be hired for the best job. Here at SIN, for example, female editors out-number male editors 2:1. However, I have never and will never call for a quota. This discrepancy in representation is down to the fact that women are traditionally more interested in journalism than men, and we are all fine with that – maybe we should start viewing political representation in a similar manner and stop looking at every single issue through the dually-cloudy lenses of sex and race.

Any problems that exist when it comes to women and politics should be addressed from the ground up, and never mandated from the top down. The key lies in education. Give our young girls and boys the confidence to pursue whichever chosen vocation they show an aptitude for, and let the discrepancies lie where they fall. It may so happen that in 50 years men make up only 27% of political representatives – as stated above political change takes time.

To conclude, the overly simple take home advice here is: If you want more women in politics, become a woman in politics.

Image from Alan Betson/The Irish Times.

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