“They say that ‘seeing is believing’, but if Social Entrepreneurs Ireland believed that, we wouldn’t be where we are now, would we? More like ‘not seeing is believing’. Well, that’s how it was for us: the dearth of women in Irish politics, election after election, and the lazy sense that we should just live with this, infuriated us. It had to change.
Women make up over 51% of the Irish population, and over 40% of the workforce. Nearly 60% of working age women are at work, compared to 30% in the 1980s, making them key drivers of our economy – as workers and consumers. And the majority of women in Ireland continue to run homes and families, caring for children and elderly relatives, despite being at (paid) work too. This is no mean feat; and yet it is not regarded as enough to wield access to the corridors of power – why?
Michelle talked about the barriers women face to entering politics, the ‘5 Cs’: cash, childcare, culture, confidence and candidate selection. I won’t rehearse these again. But back to the idea of seeing is believing – we knew there was a way to deal with these barriers. We just hadn’t seen it yet. We knew too, from the women we met, that the problem was not that women weren’t able, interested, capable and available. It was not that women lacked the energy and drive needed to succeed in politics. No, it was more than that, more subtle, less defined, and somehow linked to ‘knowing how’ – the culture barrier, and the confidence one too.
So we looked abroad, to countries that have got equal representation of women and men in politics, and to countries that are moving that way, and we learned that a combination of hard measures – legislation, quotas – and softer measures – leadership development, mentoring, networks – are what works to make politics more equal.
From there, we knew what we were about. Women for Election is a non-partisan organisation whose mission is to inspire and equip women to succeed in politics. We do this through providing a tailored training and support programme to women seeking to enter public life; and facilitating a cross-party network of political women, committed to balanced representation of women and men in Irish politics.
After months of planning, drafting, designing and debating – shaping Women for Election’s core offer – I went to see the process in action, just so I could believe it.
The Women’s Campaign School at Yale University, a week-long leadership programme focused on increasing the number of women in elected office in the US and around the world, was all it was cracked up to be. At class from 8am-7pm daily, we learned the nitty-gritty of political campaigns from the best in the country: polling, research, campaign structure and finance, fundraising, communications; we learned it all.
LEARNING FROM EACH OTHER
But what we really learned was from each other. At Yale, I became part of a network of 50 women leaders, each deeply committed to playing their part in public life. Kah, who is running for President of Cameroon this October, challenging the incumbent who has been in office for 29 years. Hadeel, whose day job is training women to run for political office in Jordan and who one days wants to see the Constitution change in her country so that she can contest a Ministerial position. Amila, who works with young women and young people in the Bosnian SDA party, training them to enter politics. Michelle, who is a firewoman by day and a union activist by night; and Zhanna, a young woman from the Russian speaking Bukarhan Jewish community in Queens New York, who has made it her mission to mobilise her community to vote.
These women inspired me, but what inspired me more was thinking of home. I didn’t need to cross the Atlantic to meet these women, there are plenty like them right here, in every town, village, county and city in Ireland. These are the women that can make a difference to our small country’s future by putting themselves forward for political life. Women for Election is about finding these women and helping them get there. If you still think seeing is believing, then watch this space!