Regardless of whether you agree with their politics or not, the appointment of Michele O’Neill as Sinn Féin’s leader in Northern Ireland should be welcomed.
Northern Ireland, potentially, could have female First and Deputy First Ministers. Of course that depends on how votes are cast on 2 March, however we now have women leading our two largest parties and if nothing else, it shows that it is possible to reach the top.
Combine this with the leadership of Naomi Long for Alliance, the Green’s deputy leader Clare Bailey, and the candour of Nichola Mallon and Claire Hanna; it appears that women are beginning to make their mark in terms of political leadership.
Being a woman doesn’t automatically make you a good leader, although neither does being a man. Clearly, having a woman leading the country doesn’t mean we will see the automatic advancement of the myriad of issues we all face. From everyday sexism, woeful reproductive rights, shocking assault and domestic violence figures, or misogyny, in the true sense of the word, there are many challenges still to be tackled. Please feel free to add your own to the above list.
The point I am making is women are seemingly becoming more visible in the political sphere.
However it is not enough to be satisfied that a handful of women have ‘made it’. There were just 30 women elected to the Assembly in 2016. That’s not even 30%. And my question to all the parties is what are your plans to improve the situation?
I’m quite sure there will be comments made in response to this blog along the lines of ‘sure anyone can put themselves forward’ and ‘people need to be selected on merit not gender’. I agree. But what if the best candidates feel unable to put themselves forward or get involved due to reasons that aren’t visible to you? Women’s influence in many aspects of life, including politics, are limited by institutional, systemic and individual barriers, both overt and hidden.
Serious political will is needed to address gender imbalance in public life including targets for the number of candidates being women. This needs to go hand–in-hand with some grass-roots action to empower women to get involved.
It is only right that half the population of Northern Ireland should be properly represented.
Sara McCracken works in communications for an educational body. She previously worked for the Green Party for #AE16 and in the health sector.