CAIN: Democratic Dialogue: Power, Politics, Positionings: Women in Northern Ireland (Report No. 4)

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Power, Politics, Positionings -
Women in Northern Ireland

In a wider world

Anne Marie Gray
Deirdre Heenan

The political disadvantage experienced by women continues to be the subject of much research and discussion.[1] Most political systems remain dominated by men. While there has been evidence of (numerical) improvement in women's representation, there is not yet any legislature in which women have achieved parity.

Last year's report of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women noted that in 1993 women still only comprised 8.8 per cent of representatives in lower houses of parliament worldwide. There were no women in the parliaments of 11 countries and the goal of 33 per cent, set by the UN Economic and Social Council in 1990, had been met in just five.

The United Kingdom occupies the unenviable position of having fewer women, proportionately, in Parliament than most other European Union members - only France, Greece and Portugal had lower figures in 1994. Lovenduski argues: "Applied to British political institutions and processes, the typology of gender balance illuminates a pattern of male gender biases in which male images and particular forms of masculinity dominate political life."[2]

This is a rather negative picture, masking advances which have been made, particularly in the Nordic countries. Until the 60s there was little to separate any of the countries in northern and western Europe. But by 1984 women had gained 15 per cent of parliamentary seats in Iceland, 26 per cent in Norway and Denmark, 28 per cent in Sweden and 31 per cent in Finland. The advance was sustained in Norway, which by 1985 had achieved the 'world record': 34 percent of its National Assembly seats were held by women, as were eight out of 18 cabinet posts, and women comprised 40.5 per cent of the membership of county councils.[3]

Norderval argues[4] that in the Nordic countries arguments for increased female representation have relied on three main principles. First is democratic justice- that justice is an important principle, and that it is unjust that women are under-represented on decision-making bodies. Second is resource utilisation - that valuable human resources are wasted when half the population is not involved in politics. The third is interest representation - that because of the different experiences of women and men (in relation to economic and social structures) they have different political interests, implying that in politics women will employ a different set of values and pursue different interests from men.

These principles provided the rationale for increasing the representation of women and contributed to theoretical debates about participation. But actual gains for women in Scandinavian parliaments have also stemmed from structural factors - such as electoral systems and methods of selection - and initiatives like quota-based reforms. Advancement must also be placed in its cultural, social and economic context, as discussed below.

Countries which have made the most significant advances are those where the electoral system is not based on first past the post but proportional representation. Compare elections in the Netherlands (an example of strict proportionality) with those in the UK (a purely majoritarian system). In the former, voters choose between lists of party candidates within a single national constituency. Under such a system, where parties have to put forward lists of nominees, women's representation has increased. Central party organisations have greater influence over nominations and so, if they are committed to including more women, can do so.

In the British system, on the other hand, voters in a constituency choose a single candidate to represent them in parliament. Here, even if central party organisations wanted to include more female candidates, they might find it difficult to impose those wishes on local selectorates. Lovenduski,[5] who notes that the success rate of women candidates in Britain decreased between 1945 and 1992, argues that such a pattern is not the result of electoral choice primarily, but of prior nomination practices.

Another distinctive feature of Scandinavian systems has been the introduction of quotas. Their advocates[6] claim they are necessary to enable a critical mass of women to be elected. Only when women comprise at least 30 per cent of representatives can they be influential in the realm of policy-making. Party reform, based on quotas, has been widely adopted in Norway, where the Socialist Left, Labour and Liberal parties each require at least 40 per cent representation of each sex at all levels of party activity; in order to reach quota requirements, parties are forced to recruit more women. In many countries, however, the impact of quotas has been more marked nationally than at local level. Local organisations have often been indifferent to actively recruiting more women, citing what they call 'practical' reasons - such as perceived low interest among women - for their failure to meet targets.

In the UK, Clare Short has consistently argued that increasing women's representation is essential to build a House of Commons which more truly represents the population. She claims that as more women come into the Commons, the culture will change and the institution will be transformed. But as Labour's experience indicates, resort to quotas is extremely contentious. It represents a significant departure for the UK political system and as such-in the form of women - only shortlists for Labour-was challenged in the courts and rejected.

Yet, as Squires notes,[7] the unchallenged assumption underpinning the debate about quotas is that it does matter that there are so few women in politics. She argues that, while the drive for quotas has failed to date, perhaps the challenge is to look towards a more expansive review of the system, rather than tinkering with it. This would need to embrace a view of representation not just concerned with Parliament but with the wider institutions of governance.

Of course, any discussion of women, politics and decision-making must go beyond electoral politics. In many developed countries since the 80s, responsibility for key policy areas and administrative responsibilities has been removed from central and local government. In many states, appointed boards ('quangos'), operating at arm's length from government, have become the new bureaucracy.[8] Given that such agencies are appointed, rather than elected, it could be argued that women could thereby be advantaged. For instance, governments usually have responsibility for making or at least sanctioning appointments, and could therefore ensure greater representation of women.

To some extent this has happened in Norway.[9] And a Dutch government guideline asserts that 50 per cent of members of all such public committees and boards should be women. 10 There are no quotas for women on non-departmental public bodies in the UK. Since 1988, however, mainly due to pressure from the Equal Opportunities Commission for Northern Ireland, government has taken some steps to increase female representation on boards in the region.

Women currently account for 32 per cent of such board members in Northern Ireland. This is a significant improvement on the 1986 figure of 18 per cent, although the target of 33 per cent, set by government for 1993, has still not been achieved. It also remains the case that of the 142 boards in Northern Ireland, 21 have no female members and-as has been found in studies in the Netherlands, despite the more prevalent female appointments there - women are less likely to be appointed to more senior positions.

Internationally, reform in public administration and management has meanwhile resulted in boards becoming more specialised and technocratic. A bureaucratic style has been adopted which is intrinsically patriarchal, a managerialism which has strong associations with masculinity.[11] Yet while there has been a burgeoning literature on non-departmental public bodies and this 'new public management',[12] little consideration has been given to its gender implications.

There is a real danger that this shift to the privileging of expertise, away from a more participative democracy, could stifle opportunities for increasing women's representation. One is reminded of Figes' statement that "selectors have a regrettable tendency to recruit in their own image".[13] Until women are adequately represented among selectors, they will have difficulty becoming appointees.

Much comparative research puts the greater public presence of women in Scandinavian countries down almost entirely to institutional influences, such as electoral systems. But factors outside political processes are central to women's exclusion - such as their role within the (private) family, which if entrenched defines them as outside the (public) political arena. Thus women may also do better in Nordic states because these share a more liberal attitude towards women, while other countries, such as the United States, New Zealand, Canada and the UK, uphold more conservative and traditional values. Negative social attitudes towards female élites can clearly deter many women from standing for office.

A host of other social and economic factors must also be considered. If one thinks about how élites in every system are drawn from highly educated, professional groups, and how their eligibility for public office often derives from their field of work and the contacts they have established, then particularly in a culture such as that of the UK women are going to be disadvantaged. Yes, more and more women are highly educated, but entering the labour market has not resulted in a lessening of their domestic responsibilities. To many, the prospect of active involvement in politics must seem little more than a potential additional burden.

Phillips argues that a growing proportion of women will enter politics, but that "those elected will be peculiarly skewed to a certain kind of woman who, like the generations of men who went before her, will be a well-educated professional, and devoted to politics full-time".[14] Even in the Nordic countries, greater proportionality has not resulted in equal access for all women. We need to think beyond the numerical and to grasp the wider issue of representation. We need to think about how to encourage a more diverse range of women to put themselves forward, which involves rethinking women's role within the family

A positive note, however, to end on. Although there is disagreement within feminist political science on whether and how women's interests can be construed, McLeay notes[15] the gathering body of evidence which demonstrates one thing - that the feminisation of political decision-making does make a difference to policy outcomes.


1J Lovenduski, Women and European Politics: Contemporary Feminism and Public Policy, Wheatsheaf, Brighton, 1986, and 'Sex, gender and British politics', Parliamentary Affairs vol 49, no 1, 1996; P Norris, 'Women's legislative participation in western Europe', in S Bashevkin ed, Women and Politics in Western Europe, Frank Cass, London, 1985;V Randall, Women and Politics, Macmillan, London, 1987; A Phillips, Engendering Democracy, Polity, Cambridge, 1991
2 Lovenduski, 1996, p6
3Lovenduski, 1986
4I Norderval, 'Party and legislative participation among Scandinavian women', in Bashevkin, op cit
5Lovenduski, 1996
6 R Brooks, C Eagle and C Short, Quotas Now: Women in the Labour Party, Fabian Tract, London, 1990; H Skjeie, The Feminisation of Power: Norway's Political Experiment, Institute for Social Research, Norway, 1986
7J Squires, 'Quotas for women: fair representation', Parliamentary Affairs, vol 49, no 1, 1996
8C Hood and G Schuppert eds, Delivering Public Services in Western Europe, Sage, London, 1988; J Stewart, 'Re-inventing accountability', Demos Quarterly, vol 1, no 14, 1993
9L Morkhagen, The Position of Women in Norway, produced by Nytt fra Norge for the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
10J Oldersama, and M Janzen-Marquand, 'Has Socrates risen?', unpublished conference paper, University of Leyden
11A Gray and B Jenkins, 'Markets, management and the public service: the changing of a culture', in P Taylor-Gooby and R Lawson ads, Markets and Managers: New Issues in the Delivery of Welfare, Open University, Milton Keynes, 1993
12 C Hood, 'A public management for all seasons', Public Administ ration, no 3, 1991; G Jones, International Thends in New Public Management, Public Policy Group Working Paper, London School of Economics, London, 1994
13 K Figes, Because of Her Sex: The Myth of Equality for Women in Britain, Macmillan, London, 1994
14 Phillips, op cit
15E McLeay, 'Women and the problem of parliamentary representation: a comparative perspective', Political Science, vol 45, no 1, 1993

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