Page last updated at 14:37 GMT, Wednesday, 21 April 2010 15:37 UK

Fair representation? Women and NI's election

By Emily Thomas
BBC News

Arlene Foster, acting First Minister of Northern Ireland
Arlene Foster became the first female head of government in all of the UK's devolved assemblies

The women most visible in this election have perhaps been those joining their husbands on the campaign trail.

Sarah Brown, Samantha Cameron and Miriam Gonzalez Durantez have all been thrust into the spotlight, never far from their husbands' sides.

With men taking up 80% of Westminster seats, it is hardly surprising that the women most scrutinised in election coverage do not hold public office.

The UK is 73rd in the world ranking of women's representation in parliament, lagging far behind countries such as Rwanda, Argentina and Sweden.

The devolved assemblies fare better with 47% female representation in the Welsh Assembly and 33% in the Scottish Parliament.

Yet in Northern Ireland, women make up just 14.8% of MLAs and fill only two of its 18 Westminster seats.

'Chronic imbalance'

The situation has been static for almost ten years.

In the 2001 general election, 19 of Northern Ireland's 100 candidates were women.

Three women, Lady Sylvia Hermon, Michelle Gildernew and Iris Robinson, won seats.

Political leadership and decision-making should mirror the society it represents, and this is not the case in Northern Ireland
Lynn Carvill

This was the first time since 1970 that Northern Ireland had chosen a woman MP, and the Centre for Advancement of Women in Politics at Queen's University Belfast said the election would be "remembered for the breakthrough made by women."

An appetite for change was apparently shown by the 2002 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, which found 57% of men and 66% of women thought there should be more women in the Assembly and Parliament.

Michelle Gildernew
Michelle Gildernew, of Sinn Fein has been MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone since 1998

But there was little discernible change in the 2005 Westminster election.

Only three more female candidates stood than in 2001 but the same three women MPs were elected.

Five years on, just 21 of the 108 candidates standing are women.

'Change' is a word much used in this election, but with movement only likely in a handful of seats, women's representation seems unlikely to increase.

Lynn Carvill of the Belfast-based Women's Resource and Development Agency has said this needs to change: "The chronic imbalance in our political decision-making processes constitutes a democratic deficit - we have neither a representative nor a participative democracy.

"Political leadership and decision-making should mirror the society it represents, and this is not the case in Northern Ireland."

Ms Carvill argued that political parties themselves need to take action: "They need to work to attract female members and ensure that a gender balance is struck when selecting candidates to go forward for election.

"Undoubtedly this will involve an attitudinal and cultural change within some political party structures" she added.

Professor Yvonne Galligan, Director of the Centre for the Advancement of Women in Politics at Queen's University said, "stereotype views of women's and men's roles in society remains strong in NI.

"This carries through to political parties who do not raise the expectations of their women members that they could hold an Assembly seat."

She says "an inbuilt bias" is "unfair to women, and unfair to the electorate, half of whom are women".

The only way to break this negative pattern, she said, is through positive measures.

In 2002 The Sex Discrimination (election candidates) Act came into force, enabling parties to take action to reduce inequalities in the numbers of men and women elected as candidates, such as quotas and all-women shortlists.

Paula Bradshaw
Paula Bradshaw, candidate for the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists

No political party in Northern Ireland has used this legislation, but it has been employed by parties in the other devolved assemblies.

In Wales after the 2003 election, the nation became a world leader for equal representation, with 50% of Assembly Members being women.

Some of the political parties had taken measures to make sure this happened, running all-women shortlists in some seats, and applying tough quotas.

Similar measures were also used by parties in the Scottish Parliament's 2003 election and 35.7% of Members elected were women.

It is possible that following this general election, change will be forced upon Northern Ireland's parties fielding candidates in the Westminster elections.

In January, the Speaker's Conference on parliamentary representation, set up by Harriet Harman, Labour's equality minister, recommended that all Westminster parties should be made to adopt quotas for their women parliamentary candidates if there is not a significant increase in female MPs at the 2010 election.

Role models?

A number of theories have been put forward to suggest why women may be reluctant to enter politics.

Iris Robinson
Former MP Iris Robinson

Some say that politics is too adversarial, politicians private lives are too scrutinised, and that structures around political participation do not suit women's lives as they still bear the brunt of caring responsibilities.

Professor Galligan said, "there is no doubt that the extra attention given to women in political life - some of it critical of the person, and not of her politics and positions - can make the decision to enter the political fray more difficult for women who are not already engaged in politics".

It is unlikely that the spotlight on former MP Iris Robinson earlier this year will have helped, or what Anna Lo called the 'offensive and pornographic' internet campaign waged against her when she entered politics.

Yet they and a number of other women have been high-profile figures in Northern Ireland's political scene.

In January, Arlene Foster became the first female head of government in all of the UK devolved parliamentary assemblies, when she was appointed as interim first minister for six weeks.

Michelle Gildernew, Minister for the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has been MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone since 1998, and Caitriona Ruane and Margaret Ritchie also hold ministerial posts in the Executive.

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