It’s Time to Talk About the Lack of Women in Politics

With just one female candidate elected to UCDSU this year, Heather Reynolds examines the struggle in getting women into politics. 

Student Union election season has ended, with only one of six female candidates elected to a sabbatical position. This, being no surprise to anyone, was not commented on outside beside a few unpopular tweets, expressing mild resignation.

UCD students, used to the all-male sabbatical team from the 17/18 session, see the lone elected female candidate as either a step in the right direction or a non-issue, which, on one level, it is. Going from a male dominated sabbatical team to a team which contains a singular woman is, on paper, an improvement. However, when compared to the year previous which had a team consisting of two women and three men, and the year before that, which had three women, it shows that overall, the election of women to sabbatical positions is on a downturn.

This downturn is not for lack of engagement, as there are women running. All but one seat in the sabbatical elections were contested by a female candidate, all of whom has relevant experience, interesting ideas, or both. In fact, almost half of the candidates who ran were women, all of whom were qualified and charismatic in their campaigns. So why did none of them win? The preferable answer is that the other candidates ran on better policies, or had more active campaign teams, however the campaign is only half the battle with elections. Personal experience with candidates, or internal bias, can change how a well fought campaign is perceived, and so misogyny is not something that can be easily discounted when discussing this issue.

It is worth examining why the first three eliminated candidates for the presidential race were all of the women who ran

If public engagement was the decider between candidates, how did Murphy beat McFadden in Richview, where only she and Aljohmani had canvassers for the entire voting period? If it was policy used to decide, how did O’Brien get more first round votes than McFadden or Aljohmani when both were more confident in their manifesto points at hustings? While it may seem reductive to assume lack of votes for female candidates is down to sexism, it is worth examining why the first three eliminated candidates for the presidential race were all of the women who ran. The same can be said in the race for Education Officer, where the candidates ran on virtually identical campaigns, had uncannily similar experience, and yet Crosby won by almost 10% of the vote.

Since 1975, only forty-three women have held a sabbatical position within the union. That is one woman for every year the union has been in session. Considering that the union has never had less than four sabbatical officers, and that the percentage of female students at third level is typically slightly higher than male students, less than a quarter of those who have held a position being women speaks to a larger issue that has echoed across student unions in Ireland. This year, Trinity students’ union had thirteen candidates for election, two of which were women, one of which was running for a position that was not actually part of the union, that of the University Times editor. Both female candidates won, however both were running virtually uncontested for the positions, as O’Mahony, now editor of the University Times, was running against a joke candidate who was also running for president. She won 58.5% of the vote. Aimee Connolly, TCSU’s incoming Education Officer, ran entirely unopposed.

Since 1975, only forty-three women have held a sabbatical position within the union. That is one woman for every year the union has been in session

The view on this may be that student politics is a nonsense aspect of student life that holds no bearing, and who cares who gets in because they never change anything anyway, they only sap funds from clubs and societies. This may or may not be true, however student politics provides a valuable role to those who wish to pursue politics in their later careers. Paschal Donohoe, current Minister for Finance & Public Expenditure and Reform, started out in the Trinity College branch of Young Fine Gael and was actively involved in student politics throughout his time in university. Without this background, he may never have gotten anywhere in national politics as it provided him with experience and contacts uninvolved students would never encounter. It is notable that the number of women holding seats in the Dáil currently stands at 22%, less than a quarter of the seats available, in line with both Trinity and UCD’s most recent elections, where one out of five officers are women.

Student politics are a lot of people’s first foray into politics as a whole. In UCD it provides a lot of students with their first experience voting down the ballot, engaging with election material, and making an informed decision regarding who they want in a democratically-elected position of authority. We are pushing women to get more involved with politics on a national level, yet male prevalence in student unions is going unexamined. Real world politics informs student politics, and student politics provides an introduction to real world politics, and so these pushes should be unified, as one cannot exist to the best of its potential without the other.