Hanna: International Women’s Day is an anniversary to mark the contribution, struggles and victories of women…let’s not lose site of it as a political event or of the road left to travel.

Continuing our series of articles, SDLP Councillor for Balmoral, Claire Hanna writes for us about her experiences and the barriers facing women in society today

International Women’s Day brings annual soul searching about the lack of women in politics, which is both a symptom and cause of our dysfunctional politics. Evidence presented by the Economist newspaper shows that where legislatures have more women, they spend more on public services, bring forward more progressive legislation and have more balanced participation in other sectors including business. As well as the lingering ‘tough guy’ culture, where most parties have endorsed might and violence as a political tactic, if not a current one, Stormont’s dismal ratios might go some way to explaining why we have a 19% gender pay gap, why there is absolutely no childcare strategy and instead a continuing obsession with national identity.

Most of the same cultural and structural barriers that exclude women from the upper echelons of other fields are in play in politics too. The messages girls get about what are appropriate traits and behaviours start early. Being outspoken and interested in the world around you is vital in politics, but often discouraged as ‘bossy’ and ‘nosy’ in little girls. Being steered away from robots and lego towards pink pastel crafts and dolls might explain why there are fewer women in STEM jobs. The messages from the toy aisle, increasingly spilling into even books being marketed differently to toddlers, have an obvious correlation with education and career paths, as well as telling children whether society values them based on their looks or their intellect.

The general apathy and inertia around NI politics is discouraging not just women but engaged and thoughtful people of each gender and age. This is partly down to global trends around political and campaigning activity, which is increasingly through NGOs. Party-based politics involves compromising and pooling some of your policies and beliefs, hopefully a small few, but signing a petition or attending a demo doesn’t. Far fewer than 1% of the population are active in political parties and involved in the boring but necessary business of organising and contesting elections, even though this is the way that power changes hands in a democracy. Until there is more diversity going in, there will be the same narrow pool of candidates coming out, and without vibrant political organisations the women who do make it onto a ticket are left with an unfeasible amount of doorstep campaigning. I say it’s a bit like choosing a partner in life – You mightn’t think you see one that is perfect for you in absolutely every single way, but you pick the best available that matches your values and you spend your life working to improve it!

The fifth main barrier to women’s participation, after culture, confidence, childcare and candidate selection, is cash. There’s little point lamenting the absence of women in politics without tackling the conditions that marginalise women economically. There’s a £2,000 per annum gap between the genders’ median income, and this hides even harsher specifics between sectors. In Belfast City Council the SDLP campaigned on fairer pay, making us the first Living Wage council on the Island, on zero hour contracts, childcare and payday loans – some of the economic conditions that are holding women, in particular, back in all areas of life. International Women’s Day is an anniversary to mark the contribution, struggles and victories of women and while there is much to celebrate, let’s not lose site of it as a political event or of the road left to travel.

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  • chrisjones2

    I don’t doubt the barriers to female participation in politics but have to say that this left me feeling quite depressed. We desperately need more diversity – because I hope it will bring in new youthful vigour and different attitudes and approaches – but for me this wasn’t a stop along that road and sounded more like something Harriet Harman might have written.

    “Evidence presented by the Economist newspaper shows that where legislatures have more women, they spend more on public services, bring forward more progressive legislation and have more balanced participation in other sectors including business.”

    But which is the chicken and which is the egg? Where is the evdience that women DO politics differently?

    “As well as the lingering ‘tough guy’ culture,”

    Gratuitous gender stereotying? Moi? I have no doubt that Stormont is deeply misogynistic at all levels and in all the parties but just hurling insults wont change that…we need to see there is a better way and how it can be delivered

    “there is absolutely no childcare strategy and instead a continuing obsession with national identity.”

    How much is really about female participation per se. Its probably more about the entire dysfunctional nature of NI politics and the sheer economics of basket case economy wedded to the minimum wage services model.

    “Being outspoken and interested in the world around you is vital in politics” ….forgive me arent those just male traits? I thought this was about how women do politics differently?

    “the women who do make it onto a ticket are left with an unfeasible amount of doorstep campaigning”

    again ………..so how is that different from males trying to establish themselves?

    “you pick the best available that matches your values and you spend your life working to improve it”

    …and I am sure he/she is/will be impressed with your assessment or approach to his selection. I doubt it was really like that at all – at least I hope it wasn’t for their and your sake …but the fact that you present it that way is, well, worrying

    “The fifth main barrier to women’s participation, after culture, confidence, childcare and candidate selection, is cash”

    ………..but can you name an elected office where women get less. Indeed, surely when female pay is so low the high salaries of Councillors and MLAS must seem doubly attractive.

    So in the end I am afraid I just don’t buy this analysis. It seems to lack focus and clarity. Come on. Wow me. Enthuse me. Show me that better way. I need a political Alka Seltzer, not this !!!!

  • kalista63

    Would I want my daughter to have a STEM based career? If she wanted to, of course but I’d much rather she (as I would a son) worked in something expressive or humanity based.

    One can’t set too much by social media but my experience on Twitter is that women are VERY much interested in politics. Have a gander at events like the anti Iraq war parade or the anti water charges protests in the south and the majority are, very often, female. The only conclusion I can make is that the format of party politics doesn’t suit. Actually, I’ve never been active in politics for the very same reason.

    I come from one of those old New Lodge Road matriarchal families, with a great aunt who fought the state from the start and a granny and her daughters who were involved in the labour movement. Today, in ‘the other community’ we have the women of Twaddell. Why did those women not protest at Stormont over the welfare reforms?

  • Granni Trixie

    I wonder what “barriers” were in operation in SB Sdlp when a man from outside the constituency was parashooted in and selected to replace AMcD even thogh there were long standing local women councillors workng on the ground (eg Claire Hanna)?

  • Granni Trixie

    O dear Anon sorry my wee spelling g joke didn’t work for you.

    John: you make valid points I can’t argue with as regards Bernie and Claire.
    As regards APNI I have to say that not all the selections made would be my personal choice though not so much that I can’t canvass for them.

  • Croiteir

    Lets be honest – the best way forward in Irish politics is not to be male but have mammy/daddy give you position on a plate

  • Croiteir

    Supporting a letsgetalongerist – new light out of old windows

  • Joe Wark

    Many EU countries have forced national service conscription for males.Men have traditionally been forced to fight wars and do generally more dangerous work. The suffragetes certainly didnt campaign to stand in a muddy field in flanders!!
    Speaking of fair pay, why down women have a lower pension age than men when they actually tend to live longer?

  • Reader

    Soapbox: The fifth main barrier to women’s participation, after culture, confidence, childcare and candidate selection, is cash.
    Surely it is the family income that determines whether someone can get into politics – not the individual income? (Unless it’s that pin money is less than beer money – wrong partner!)
    Alternatively, for younger people without partners, the income discrepancy is far smaller anyway.
    And how does a shortage of cash stop someone from joining a political party?