In 1918, an Irishwoman made political history. Constance Markievicz, revolutionary, suffragette and socialist, was elected to the House of Commons. She was the first woman to receive such an honour, and turned it down due to her loyalty to the Irish state. She was what you’d call a bit of a badass. However, despite such a spirited heritage for Irish women and politics, we still only occupy 27 of the 166 Dáil Éireann seats. That’s 16%, when we’re over 50% of the population. And this is the best representation our gender have ever had in the Dáil. Since Constance Markievicz’s involvement in the foundation of the State in 1918, 95 women have been elected in the Republic of Ireland. Considering we’re celebrating the centenery of 1916 next year, this is nothing short of a disappointing disgrace.
Enter stage left the Women for Election, the winners of the IMAGE Businesswoman of the Year Award 2015 for Social Entrepreneurship. Women for Election is the terribly clever brainchild of Niamh Gallagher and Michelle O’Donnell Keating and provides training, support and mentoring to women who want to become more politically active. Niamh has a background in policy and children’s rights, while Michelle is financial services sector survivor with a talent for project management and a knack for baking. We caught up with our two winners to talk about why they do what they do and to pick their brains for some practical advice when it comes to traversing the knotty landscape that is politics.
How did you meet?
We were introduced by a mutual friend, Jillian van Turnhout, who by an interesting twist of fate is now a woman in politics.
Can you remember the moment Women For Election started forming in your brains?
We started with a campaign called Women for Europe, which took us all over Ireland talking to women’s group large and small about women, Ireland and the EU. After more than 60 events & having met more than 5,000 women we were sitting together on a step on Merrion Square talking about what we’d learnt. We had realised, having gone up and down the country, that there were thousands of women out there who wanted to get more involved in politics, but weren’t sure exactly what to do to take that next step. Women for Election was our response to that – ‘a bridge from interest to action’ for any woman, who wants to get involved in politics at any level.
What has been the biggest surprise of the past few years? What did you learn that you didn’t expect?
Just how many amazing women there are out there that want to get involved in Irish politics! We knew there were lots but we couldn’t have anticipated that more than 800 women would have come through our doors for training. What’s even better is that so many of them said they had been waiting for years, totally on their own, trying to work out how to take this step, Women for Election gave them the outlet and the courage to come forward, and when they did it they realised there were lots and lots of other women just like them. The collective support – cross-party – that the women have provided to one another has been inspirational.
The introduction of quotas means we’ll be seeing more female candidates in the next election. How do you think this will affect politics in this country?
The quota has already had an enormously positive impact. It has pushed parties to move from talking about how they support women to actually demonstrating it, by putting women on the ticket. There are 118 women selected so far, of just over 380 candidates. That is 30%, and the largest number of women to ever contest a general election in Ireland (the figure in 2011 was 86). This change, so rapidly, would not have happened without the quota.
After the election, we anticipate there will be more women than ever elected to the Dáil. That will have a positive effect on how business is conducted, how policy is developed and the kinds of priorities that are focused on. We believe deeply in a balanced representation of women and men in political life. This election will bring us closer to achieving that.
The women who are attracted to your programmes – what do they have in common? Is there an issue you observe which tends to unite women who want a political career?
They want to get into politics to change something. Many of them have had an experience in their lives that they don’t want others to have – a battle to get a place for a special needs child into school, a serious financial loss in the crisis, emigration in their family or community – they can see the failings of the current system and they want to get in there and change it.
Most who come on our programme are united by a determination to get there. What’s most striking is how supportive they are of one another, there are so many shared experiences and aspirations, and they are always able to put party politics to one side and recognise what they are trying to achieve collectively, and that they are part of a historic moment in Ireland.
Can you share any WFE success stories?
We can share hundreds! Of the 441 women who contested last year’s local elections almost 200 had been through our training, and of that 200 almost 100 were elected. That means half of all female councillors nationally are our alumnae. So there are lots of successes.
Do Irish women tend to run for election when they’re older?
It really is a mix. But one of the things we came across on our initial programmes was women in their 50s and 60s coming along but saying they wouldn’t run as they were too old. We felt so strongly that this was absolutely not the case we began a real campaign to address it. As we see it, women of this age are at an ideal stage for local politics (where our focus was at the time), most of them have lived in their community for many years, raised families there, accessed every single service, are familiar to everyone and are at a point in their lives where they are not self-conscious or concerned with what others think. They are also vastly experienced, very practical and have an enormous amount to contribute. These are exactly the kind of women that need to put themselves forward, and, by doing so, they become role models for younger women, who seeing them realise they can do it too.
One of my concerns, if I decided to go into public life, would be the thought that my private life was up for grabs. Hackings, ex-boyfriends, vulnerable family members stalked by the media. If someone has a skeleton in the closet, or a background that would be a pain to spin, would you advise them to avoid a political career?
We provide a very targeted training on this issue, delivered by Nan Sloane, trainer to female Labour MPs in the UK. We are clear that this is not a reason to avoid a political career, but what is important that those who matter to you are aware of the issue and prepared if it emerges in the media.
Younger female candidates are pretty au fait with social media, which is great for getting their profile out there, but there’s also the danger of some trigger finger tweets that might look pretty dire out of context. Does WFE encourage a social media audit?
Absolutely, in fact, on EQUIP – our three-day residential campaign school – our trainer, Cathal Lee, does one on all candidates before they arrive, unbeknownst to them. It’s a cringe-worthy session, where candidates see how their photos and comments – up for grabs on social media – look when they are taken out of context. After that session, there isn’t a person in the room who underestimates the importance of a social media audit.
Twitter is a reactive platform – which is great in ways, but then there’s the issue of abuse online. I’ve often seen female politicians and commentators attacked with their appearance being dragged into the ‘debate’. How do you help women face the fact they’re going to have to deal with all that BS?
One of the key elements to a successful political career is resilience and it is something we constantly focus upon, through our training programmes, the insights from our politically experienced guest speakers and also our workshops. The key to resilience is understanding what to expect and being equipped to deal with it.
We are very open about the fact that women who aim high – irrespective of their career choice – will be targeted with attacks on their image. Once this is accepted, women can move past being surprised if it happens but focus upon building techniques to counter act it. From a very practical example, our social media workshops focus upon how to block, mute and respond to such attacks, but this is bolstered by in-depth communications training from people such as Drury Porter Novelli Communications or Orlaith Carmody from MediaTraining.ie who guide our participants on how to overcome such challenges from a communications perspective.
Importantly and in addition to this we always consider the personal perspective and many of our past and current female politicians have shared their own experiences, feelings and reactions to such abuse in smaller facilitated groups and this proves to be inspiring to participants in that they see and hear from people who come out the other side.
Is education and the way girls being treated in school holding them back from pursuing politics?
Education and schooling is an important factor in the career choices made by our children. It is worth noting that the Irish education system and ethos have changed dramatically over the past number of decades. We have moved away from a system where many girl’s schools would focus on “girl subjects” and not facilitate “boy subjects” such as physics or economics and the societal expectation was that girls would enter female led careers. This is somewhat compounded by the segregation of boys and girls which is very common in our school system that can contribute to a gendered focus on education.
It is important to recognize “you can be what you cannot see” syndrome where young people – both boys and girls – look around them when considering career options and are influenced from a very young age, and for young girls that cannot see themselves “mirrored” in political careers it can be a big factor in their choice.
The introduction of Politics as a subject at second level is to be very welcomed and we would like to see this tackle very practically political activism, engagement and also connecting in the students with their representatives. While it is always very interesting to learn the historical and theoretical context of politics, practical connections will bring this to life.
And finally, a question on behalf of all The West Wing/Scandal/House of Lies junkies. If a woman was interested in working in politics, but not as a politician, what other career paths are open to her?
The options are endless. We always point out that it’s not all about the face on the poster and this is so important. Running for election is not for everyone but it is important for our society that we all take some level of interest in our politics as the decisions make an impact all our lives. Careers such as Campaign Managers, Political advisors or Public Affairs Consultants make fascinating careers with a political bent, but if that’s not for you why not support a candidate, giving your time to help canvass, leaflet drop or help out with their social media. We promise it will be fun and you will get to meet some of the incredible people around Ireland that work to make our communities better places for us all.