Would more women in Stormont help improve our politics?

Interesting piece from this week’s Hearts and Minds on the vexed issue of how to get more women into politics. Sandra Overend (UUP, Mid Ulster) worries that privleging women would create uncertainty. Not an unreasonable concern.

And yet, it is remarkable that there are so few women in the political class. Although things have improved considerably since 1998, only one in five of the MLAs in Stormont are female. It’s interesting to note that although not all of the top ten countries for representation of women in parliament have quotas, most do:

Ironically in last year’s Slugger awards we did actually come up with an all female shortlist, with Alliance’s Naomi Long taking the top prize (largely for the feat of unseating the leader of the DUP from his Westminster seat).

And I’ve heard it said of Dawn Purvis (another Slugger finalist, who went on to lose her Stormont seat last May) that her work in committee was head and shoulders above many of her colleagues (female as well as male) because she had a capacity to listen to what people actually say and respond accordingly.

What’s at play here is not that women are better than men (though they may be better at doing some things) and therefore somehow deserve a hand up. As Henry Farrell remarked in reference to Scott E Page’s work a few years back on why diversity matters to us all:

If one goes for a narrow pool of the ‘best’ people according to some categorization, one is likely to draw upon a pool of individuals that are quite like each other in some very important ways, and that are likely to have broadly similar conceptual toolkits.

If, instead, one draws upon people who are only good, but from a wide variety of backgrounds, one is likely to end up with people who have a much broader range over-all of problem solving tools, and who (communications problems discounted) can probably do a better job of figuring out interesting things.

This argument for diversity notably doesn’t suggest that one hires or admits a token group of visible minorities in order, in Walter Benn Michael’s terms, to assuage the class guilt of the rich elites who form the very substantial majority of, say, the student population at elite universities.

It means that one should select from a genuinely diverse set of class backgrounds, cultural viewpoints etc, in order to maximize the likelihood of collective problem solving.

Gender is no guaranteed marker of the kind of cognitive diversity Page is talking about. But it suggests that we may need a broader range of people types in parliament (though Chris is sceptical) as we do in staff groups not, as is commonly supposed, in order to right some long standing political wrongs, but in order to create a better class of decision makers.


  • cynic2

    Perhaps the problem is that many of those who infest our political class – in all parties- are middle aged men who rightly feel threatened by competent young women who can out argue them instead of making a nice cup of tea and listening to the wisdom they want to hand down

  • Mick Fealty

    To be fair, I don’t think you can tar all parties with the same brush and get away with it. SF have been lengths ahead of their opponents on this issue since 1998.

  • ayeYerMa

    Mick, Sinn Fein are merely playing their usual propaganda tricks. The way that they intentionally put their female MLAs at the front in Stormont is so blatant, and nothing but an attempt to try and mask the fact that two thirds of their MLAs are convicted terrorists.

    I think this highlights perfectly the question of merit.

  • cynic2


    I agree – up to a point. The women were brought in to the ‘normal politics’ areas but never got a foothold on the heavyweight negotiations. Occasionally they were wheeled out for the optics but that was about it. All the same I agree – light years ahead of the rest

  • “But it suggests that we may need a broader range of people types in parliament .. in order to create a better class of decision makers.”

    Not just in parliament, Mick, but in the whole governance process. Competence is not a requirement for public office yet some of our elected representatives are charged with running government; as a good friend of mine once put it, some couldn’t be trusted with running a bath.

    Three of our thirteen ministers are women whereas only one of our twelve permanent secretaries is a woman. The Permanent Secretaries Group meets on a Friday in the Glasshouse at Stormont where the glass ceiling inhibits both women and competence – and the online minutes are several weeks late.

    Public service incompetence in Northern Ireland may well have few peers across these islands.

  • Mick Fealty


    Look, I don’t want this to disappear down the usual shinner bashing glory hole. Here’s how they all stack up:

    Alliance 2/8
    DUP 5/38
    Green 0/1
    Independents: 0/2
    SDLP: 3/14
    Sinn Fein: 8/29
    TUV: 0/1
    UUP: 2/13

  • Mick, you’ve just listed those candidates who were chosen by the electorate to represent them in Stormont. Perhaps someone could compile the overall list of candidates per party who were nominated. This might or might not show a different disparity.

  • iluvni

    Maybe the women should start a party of their own, call it the ‘womens coalition’ or something…its bound to be a roaring long term success, they’ll sort all the problems out, before falling out and settling into over paid useless qango-land for the rest of their days.

  • Mick Fealty

    It’s been done Nev. choosing women to run in no hope seats not always a good measure of serious intent.

  • Perhaps NILT should put an appropriate gender question or series of gender questions on their next political survey.

  • “choosing women to run in no hope seats”

    That’s a separate issue, Mick. Parties will run men and women candidates in such (and other) seats to built party and constitutional aspiration percentages.

  • kelephonica

    I attended the conference at QUB on Friday called ‘how to elect more women in northern ireland’ run by the Women’s Resource and Development Agency and the Centre for the Advancement of Women in Politics. A fantastic event with great input from political scientist, party strategist and female MLAs. The mood of the room was definitely that women are calling for urgent action to address our dire under-representation in Northern Ireland, particularly in the assembly. The onus is on parties to sort out the internal process to ensure the electorate have more women to choose when they go to the polls but the feeling was very much that if parties won’t do this voluntarily then some sort of compulsory positive action is required.

    And the very title and tone of this whole article says alot to me about why the political will may not be there in Northern Ireland to make these hard but necessary steps to develop out democracy. I’m not sure it’s going to be apparent to all the men here discussing whether we women would bring something to improve politics here that the very question is disgustingly offensive – Mick I would have thought should know better! Unless we wise up and realise that the question is one of equal rights then the changes necessary to afford women fair representation are never going to happen. So please don’t insult us with some pithy discussion about whether or not gender affects how good someone is at politics or what they might bring to it – can we just focus on the fact that 18% representation places us in 60th place in the world rankings for women”s political representation and see if we can work together to fix that?

  • charlesvand

    “Sandra Overend (UUP, Mid Ulster) worries that privleging women would create uncertainty. Not an unreasonable concern”

    A more ‘reasonable concern’ is the glaringly obvious issue of the unequal representation of women in politics – is this the ‘broader range of people types’ Mr Fealty is referring to?
    increasing awareness of opportunies for women in politics should not be seen as a ‘hand up! ‘

  • Granni Trixie

    I agree that we need more diversity of all sections of the population.. But women are now over 50% of the population so to me there is an easily identified problem there. But until there is more acceptance of that problem, it will contiinue to be ignored. If every party monitored the roles and representation within their organisations they could then set goals to improve their performance. Training up women for leadership is all fine and dandy but it is structures and cultures in political parties which needs to alter. Also, in relation to this problem in the Repubic, I heard someone argue that the government could encourage parties by having funds available for them to meet a certain level of representation of women.
    (or withhold monies should they not do so).

    re Quotas: I do not like the idea of quotas to resolve any problem but I do like the outcomes they can bring.
    How many who are opposed to quotas for women in politics were against the solutaion of quotas to reform the RUC. It seemed odd to me at the time that Patton advocated quotas for new RC/Protestant recruits and yet made no such recommendation in relation to women who were/are greatly underrepresented,dynamics which contributed to a militaristic culture.

  • beklync

    I think gender is not a hindrance or a reason for some people not to improve our politics. There are powerful men and women around the world who are into politics and they all function just the same.

    Understanding Dog Behavior

  • ForkHandles

    as far as i know, NI politics has been a male thing in the past and there are few women involved and it has been this way for decades. so lets not expect that to change overnight, although it would be great if it did. starting from that base, it’s hard to have a 50/50 split right away. the problem needs to be addressed at the base level to involve women in parties. then to promote competent women to higher levels within parties, without getting daft, this should be done with a view that men are also competent! . theres no point highlighting only the top level deficiencies. lets see an assessment of the grassroots party mechanisms that are currently at work to promote women, ethnic minorities, and a balanced religious membership to each of the main parties. Yes that’s right! I did say a balanced religious membership!!! After all we are talking about an aim of making the parties a reflection of the NI community aren’t we??? 

  • ForkHandles

    correction – this should NOT be done with a view that men are also competent!

  • I did some historical number-crunching on this last year before the election. The ranking of each party by percentage of female candidates was:

    British National Party 1/3 (33%)
    Alliance Party 7/22 (32%)
    Sinn Féin 11/40 (27.5%)
    Traditional Unionist Voice 2/12 (17%)
    Green Party 1/6 (17%)
    UK Independence Party 1/6 (17%)
    DUP 7/45 (16%)
    SDLP 4/28 (14%)
    UUP 3/28 (10%)
    (Independents 1/15 – 7%)
    People Before Profit Alliance 0/4 (0%)
    The Workers Party 0/4 (0%)
    Socialist Party 0/3 (0%)
    Procapitalism 0/1 (0%)
    Progressive Unionist Party 0/1 (0%)

    Of winning candidates, as Mick points out above, the proportions are:

    Sinn Fein: 8/29 (28%)
    Alliance 2/8 (25%)
    SDLP: 3/14 (21%)
    DUP 5/38 (13%)
    UUP: 2/16 (12.5%)
    Independents: 0/2 (0%)
    Green 0/1 (0%)
    TUV: 0/1 (0%)
    (NB corrected Mick’s seat total for the UUP)

    Women candidates for the DUP, and to a lesser extent Alliance, were more likely to lose; women candidates for the SDLP, and to a much lesser extent the UUP, were more likely to win; women candidates for SF did as well as their male running-mates.

    Personally, I think quotas are eminently defensible and have clearly worked elsewhere. In the Northern Ireland situation you would simply make it a requirement that every party must include at least x% (possibly 30%, maybe 40%) of each gender on the overall list of candidates for elections (other than European elections where a) each party only runs one candidate so it would not be enforceable and b) we have two out of three women MEPs so it may not be a problem). Co-options to councils or Assembly seats would have to redress any imbalance. On the whole, party activists (especially female party activists) tend to be shy about calling for this sort of change, so the loudest voices need to come from politically engaged citizens outside the parties.

  • Thanks, Nicholas. Did you do any number-crunching for local councils?

    A quick check of Moyle Council shows that 40% of the candidates were women and 46.7% of the councillors are women. So Moyle can show even Sweden a clean pair of heels 🙂

  • Another brief observation from Moyle. The women converted a 37.1% first preference vote into a 46.7% council share.

  • Mick Fealty


    I knew I’d get it wrong. I was counting off the screen on the Assembly website.


    You asked for those figures.. Any comment?

  • Mick, the party choices provide a larger sample; they also will tell us more about the parties themselves. It’s interesting that the two more extreme parties, the DUP and SF, give women more prominence than the UUP and SDLP. As someone has already noted these more centrally controlled parties may use women to soften their image.

    Council choices provide an even larger sample so it would be interesting to see if the strong performance by the women of Moyle is reflected elsewhere. This performance may have come at a price for Moyle SF. Their three women were elected but their two men were blown away by two Independent Republican men; as I’ve previously noted these independents took 47% of the Republican first preferences. The SF share in Ballycastle fell from 35% to 21% and in the Glens from 47.2% to 35.7%.

  • weidm7

    I don’t see why it’s remarkable that there are fewer women MLAs, there are also fewer women in higher paid, higher prestige jobs in the private sector. Women also tend to be more reserved, more socially anxious and less assertive than men (tendencies, there are stats to back this up, but I’m afraid I don’t have them), there are also certain jobs where women tended to be more represented, so why is it so remarkable that there’s not more in politics?

    To solve the problem would require huge social changes on various levels with the help of various sectors of society, good luck to ye.

  • Catherine Couvert

    “To solve the problem would require huge social changes on various levels with the help of various sectors of society”
    Yes. We are working on it 🙂

  • FuturePhysicist

    cynic2 (profile) 10 March 2012 at 10:16 am

    “Perhaps the problem is that many of those who infest our political class – in all parties- are middle aged men who rightly feel threatened by competent young women who can out argue them instead of making a nice cup of tea and listening to the wisdom they want to hand down”

    So Ageism good, Sexism bad?

    Since when did Feminism only apply to the under 40’s?

    Perhaps we should be looking at the perceptions of those who are not par se against women being in politics, but rather against middle-aged and older women being in politics.

    Quite often the middle aged women in our politics from Ritichie to Ruane, from Iris to Herman, from Dawn Purvis to Arlene Foster from Lo to McWilliams, from Mary McAlese to Mary Robinson are seen as the easy targets for abuse.

    Dare I say it the Michelle O’Neill’s and Sandra Overend’s are not seen in the same light. In about 10 years time they’ll experience the same sort of jabs by those claiming to respect women.

  • Scáth Shéamais

    Would more women in Stormont help improve our politics?

    If we had more Iris Robinsons it’d certainly make our politics more, uh, ‘interesting’.

  • Greenflag

    ‘Would more women in Stormont help improve our politics?’

    What does that mean ‘improving our politics ‘ ? Better debates ? Better legislation, Better Budgeting ? Better listening ?

    The listing of countries above re women’s participation should have included figures for the UK, USA , Canada , and the Republic of Ireland .

    As to better governance if more women are elected – the examples of Sweden , Finland , Norway stick out but then as against that there is Iceland ? and Argentina .

    South African participation rates are interesting given the traditional ‘male ‘ dominance in African societies . Denmark and Finland show high rates of participation by women without gender quotas .

    The question has to be is Northern Ireland more like South Africa/Argentina or Finland / Denmark in it’s ‘attitude ‘ to women in politics ?

    While I would share Sandra Overends concern at ‘priviliging ‘ and it’s still possible that NI might eventually attain Danish or Finnish rates of participation without having to have quotas -bringing in a gender quota on a temporary basis for say three elections would speed up the process .

    Would that give better governance though ? Who can tell but it seems to work for the Swedes who have as a people the highest ‘opinion ‘ of their elected representatives in parliament (a 58% approval rating ) as opposed to the USA ( 9% approval rating for Congress) .

    On balance the answer would have to be a yes .