Jo-Anne Dobson: We need to inspire change rather than force it

Slugger will be running a series of articles over the next few weeks highlighting the issue of women in politics. First up is the Ulster Unionist MLA Jo-Anne Dobson writing about her experiences in the Assembly.

A few months after I was elected to Stormont I found myself standing on the front steps of Parliament Buildings with some fellow MLAs to support a local charity’s latest initiative.

The charity had sent us details of what they were promoting and asked that MLAs meet at this time for a photograph.

As they called us forward for the photograph a lady came across to me and said “This is for MLAs only.” I politely responded that I was an MLA and the photo continued.

On reflection it was clear that her view of a politician was that they are male and wear a dark suit – the challenge for me is to shatter this perception and hopefully inspire more women to enter public life.

I believe that women have so many unique attributes to bring to the political system, whether it comes from knowledge and experience of running a home which, as Margaret Thatcher once said, can be translated into the running of government, or a practical approach to problem-solving.

Many of the issues which come through my constituency office on a daily basis relate to medical or health problems, whether it is waiting times for an appointment or care packages for an elderly or disabled relative.

In my role as an MLA I have had the privilege of having so many young people work shadowing me at Stormont and in my constituency office.  I believe it’s so important to encourage our next generation of leaders to step forward and the best way to do that is by following the example of others.

I have spoken many times in the Assembly Chamber about how we need more women to step forward and consider a career in politics.  The rough and tumble of political debate may not be attractive for many, but I believe women should change it rather than join it.  It is important to remember that political bluff and bluster in the chamber is often used to cover inability or failure! The secret is to expose that.

I have been a member of the Ulster Unionist Party since 1995 when my mum, Joanie, first sowed the seeds of my interest in politics.  I first put myself forward in a Craigavon Council by-election back in 2010, which I won with 64% of the vote.

I was coming rather late to politics, but for personal circumstances as my son Mark, then 15, had been diagnosed with kidney failure when he was just five weeks old – he was my priority in life. One year before the by-election he had just received a life-saving kidney transplant and I felt the time was now right for me.

Interestingly when I put my name forward for selection to be my Party’s candidate I was competing against two other female candidates for the nomination. When I won and my name appeared on the ballot paper I was competing against three male candidates!

None of this came about through positive discrimination or the use of all-female selection lists.  It is only right that women should get there on their merit and ability not by the playing field being slanted somehow in their favour.

Using my personal background and experience I have brought forward a proposal at Stormont to modernise our organ donation laws to enable more people to have the chance of a new life which my son received.  I have also fought for increased care packages for the elderly and disabled, additional pre-school places and alongside local charities and campaigners spearheaded the fight to have a life-saving Meningitis B vaccine introduced onto the child immunisation programme.  These are issues which are important to each and every family in Northern Ireland.

Politics and political decision making is improved immensely by our legislators accurately reflecting the society we live in, but we need to inspire change rather than force it!