On Ireland and gender quotas

From the usual rotation crop of controversial issues, it was the return of gender quotas for petri dish analysis last night on Prime Time. When I heard the topic advertised, I turned to my fella who was already wondering how he could delicately extricate himself from the room without making it too obvious. That’s what the bathroom in our house is for: a safe passageway from another debate on wimmin. Or rather my participation in the debate with comments audible to no-one other than myself. I made him wait to see if I was right in my predictions that the panel would likely comprise a fairly homogeneous group of women in terms of class, ethnicity, and success. Guess what? He went to the kitchen. I don’t always get it right.

The host was joined by two business women, one barrister, and a politician. Presumably they represented not just the divided views on the merits of quotas, or the savvy articulate Irish woman, but the broad interests and experiences of women in terms of the barriers encountered and the rounded view their respective positions as well as life experience affords them. So far, so run-of-the-mill.

Consideration was given to the need for interventionist gender quotas to re-boot the political system and encourage participation from women in politics and the board room. Those in favour (the politician and one business owner) cited the successes in Scandinavia and the political imperative to build a government reflective of the people it represents. Counter arguments from the other two panelists (the barrister and another business owner) challenged the assumed successes in Scandinavia, and pointed to the risk of undermining women by accelerating them into positions and systems for which they are not adequately experienced, and so on. All were unanimous in recognising the need for better childcare to create and sustain the family conditions necessary to help women overcome the barriers to participation in the boardroom and the ballot paper.

Like the elusive representative government that will unlikely exist in my life time, it would be impossible for a discussion panel to be wholly representative of the gender group being discussed. But at some point during the discussion, it was not unreasonable to expect someone to pick up on the mention of qualifications strewn throughout like conversational confetti. Ireland may have an impressive number of women with a third level qualification, but its record in supporting women in working class and low-income families into third level education is abysmal, and they are still heavily disadvantaged and excluded from getting on a rung on the ladder where the issues of childcare and family supports are the only issues that matter. If we’re serious about mobilising a diversity of women into the boardroom, then that must include commitment to paving their way into the higher education classroom, whether as young students or mature return learners. ‘Career’ and choice can’t be the preserve of those with letters already trailing their name.

Additionally, the near obsessional over-emphasis on those qualifications in Ireland as a benchmark for ability and experience further compounds the status quo for women on the margins, and for those whose qualifications have gone past their sell-by date through participation in the home. Talk of women’s qualifications speaking for themselves is all very laudable, but it is not representative of the reality of a vast majority of women. The higher educational and class biases within these debates often serves to erode the quality of them. And the neat equation of qualification equaling the right to – and the demand for – employment, with little value placed on education for its own sake is worryingly Tory.

In highlighting the risks of appointing women beyond their capability, the barrister panelist pointed to the new Arts Minister, Heather Humphries, as someone inexperienced who came into office on the back of preferential treatment based on apparent gender and geographical factors. And it shows. I couldn’t help but feel Humphries must have surely been hanging her head in defeat knowing that the only person present to defend her appointment was her colleague, Mary Mitchell O’Connor. An elected representative who proves that irrespective of quotas, the electorate are not to be trusted.

Perhaps Ivana Bacik was already booked last night, but given she has been driving legislation on gender quotas, her input would’ve been timely. Whether or not the audience agreed with her, at least she would’ve been relied on to broaden the discussion to highlight the need for other critical supports necessary for the participation of women in politics as well as childcare etc. Because politics is not the preserve of ballot seekers or political parties, it belongs to all citizens in common. Jump-starting women’s politicisation begins in schools, where politics and philosophy occupies minimal curriculum time, if at all. Another missed opportunity to cite the inarguable strides made in Scandinavia. Political reforms don’t happen in a vacuum. It is no accident that gender equality there is head and shoulders above its European neighbours. They have a systematic approach to citizen engagement with the inclusion of critical thinking from a young age upwards.  Building maturity takes investment and effort. Ireland lags embarrassingly behind on many fronts.

Pathways to politics no longer rely exclusively on higher education, though those in office have traditionally emerged from places of privilege. In drawing gasps at the mere suggestion of quotas, the amnesia concerning our long tradition of tinkering with democracy through political family dynasties never fails to amuse.  Perhaps it informs the resistance towards them from some.

Whatever one’s view on quotas, meaningful civic democratic politics are built from the ground up through effective consultation with women, open debate in which policies and issues concerning them are rigorously scrutinised and torn apart to flush out the range of competing views as diverse as women themselves. Add to this, community development programmes and empowering leadership opportunities that seek to inform and support the participation of women from all backgrounds in politics and ensure the labours of working class women undertaking critical work on the ground in their communities are converted into a place in public debate in the round. Women whose political labour is often invisible, unpaid but heavily depended on, or insecure, underpaid, and a form of employment in a sector subject to the most catastrophic funding cuts.  Severing commitment to grassroots political participation guarantees the further exclusion of swathes of women from having their voices heard and assuming their rightful place at the high table of decision-making. Whether that is as an elected representative, or not.

Gender quotas – always worthy of debate, but a more rounded discussion would be worthy of refraining from shouting at the TV for. There’s only so many times my fella can read the paper.

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