Committee set up for women – ‘step for proper change’

Committee set up for women – ‘step for proper change’

18 November 2020

NEWRY, Mourne and Down Council is to set up a new dedicated women’s committee.

There was across-the-board political support for a motion calling for the new group to be established to discuss and promote women’s issues at last week’s meeting of the local authority’s Strategy, Policy and Resources Committee.

The motion was tabled by Slieve Croob councillor Cathy Mason and her Slieve Gullion counterpart, Oonagh Magennis, with the aim of building the skills and confidence of female representatives and to promote women getting involved in local politics to aim to achieve proportionality.

The politicians say while the new informal group will comprise women councillors, the local authority’s male representatives will be encouraged to attend and become champions on women’s issues. 

Cllr Mason said the new group will engage with the council and other organisations and focus on training, education and confidence building opportunities, alongside networking and expertise and empowering each other, both inside the debating chamber and within the community they represent. 

She said any working group should be non-restrictive and encompass all parties to be able to engage with particularly, but not solely, female leadership figures within the council’s ranks and beyond. 

Cllr Mason said that just over one quarter of councillors across the province’s 11 district councils are female which is well below the European average of 33%, despite more than half of the population being female. 

“Newry, Mourne and Down is ranked eighth out of 11 councils in terms of percentages of female representatives, while the Causeway Coast and Glens Council has 40% female representation in its debating,” she continued.

Cllr Mason said just 11 of the local council’s 41 elected representatives were women, 10 of whom were formally elected with one co-opted. The previous council had nine female councillors and while pleased that the number has increased, the Slieve Croob politician said a lot of work still needs to be done.

“When I look around the debating chamber I note that there are no female party group leaders,” she continued. “Some political parties have a very small number of female representatives, while others have none. I do believe that these parties have got some very tough questions to ask themselves about what they are doing to address this.  

“We do, however, have an opportunity to now tackle this head on. We have a female chief executive, female chairwoman of council and several female committee chairs, giving us a fantastic platform to address this shameful representation issue.”

Cllr Mason said reports from around the world indicated that when women step forward to claim their right to participate in politics, they are met by a backlash that encompasses harassment and abuse, both online and offline, with many local cases publicised recently.

She said such widespread attacks against politically active women were a clear indicator of the “negative impact of unequal gender norms” on the democratic health of societies. 

“Over the past century, significant progress has been made in women’s numerical representation in politics around the world. But, all too often, this has not directly translated into greater political influence. Political equality remains a distant goal,” Cllr Mason continued.

“Efforts to improve female representation in politics have often focused on quotas and reserved shares. What is really needed is a nuanced approach that tackles the underlying, interconnected barriers that women face in getting nominated for elected office, conducting successful campaigns and becoming effective, respected political representatives.”

Cllr Mason said only one of the 11 candidates in the Downpatrick electoral area at the last council election was a woman, arguing “this is not good enough” and that the question that has to be asked is why are women not putting themselves forward. More importantly, she said something has to be done about it.

“Some social scientists cite traditional family arrangements that limit women’s career choices, while researchers at the Brookings Institution have found what might be called an ‘ambition gap’ generally within the population with women underestimating their abilities and chances for success,” she continued. “It makes them generally less likely than men to even consider seeking public office, or to have political professionals encourage them to run. This needs to change.”

Cllr Mason asked if Newry, Mourne and Down Council has considered that it has working mothers who are councillors and that when timetabling meetings, is this taken this into consideration, suggesting that her female colleagues would agree that they have to juggle numerous tasks at work, home and within family life in order to attend a council meeting. 

“Research suggests that lack of confidence and self-assurance are key issues for women in political life or those with an interest in entering political life,  preventing many from entering the male dominated sphere of politics. We must provide a vehicle to change this,” she declared.

“Training and mentoring programmes which focus on helping women attain the knowledge, skills and confidence to stand for election and become effective and respected representatives once elected have been identified as one potential way to break down some of the barriers for political representatives and potential candidates.”

Cllr Mason asked how many times female councillors have sat in meetings with officials from various agencies and organisations who have directed their attention to the male members.

“This has happened me and no doubt many of my female colleagues many many times. Some of these gender norms are unconscious and entirely unintended, however, we have a duty to identify and challenge these at every opportunity,” the Slieve Croob councillor declared.

“I am a mother, wife and relatively new elected representative aged 32 and am determined to make political life and indeed linked community and civic life more accessible and equitable for fellow women. 

“I do not accept the unequal gender norms or the lack of confidence that many women within every walk of life, including ours, suffer or the unequal political influence that exists. I will not accept the fact that female representatives are faced with more harassment and abuse than our male counterparts and am determined to do something about it.”

Cllr Mason said she was pleased to table a motion that will bring together representatives from all parties to look specifically at these issues and indeed many others to educate and empower. She said the new group may be able to reach out to other organisations, sectors, young women and girls and local government employees.

“We may be able to harness experience and expertise to share experience, skills and find a way to tackle some of the serious issues impacting women in our society in political life and outside it,” she said.

“The current pandemic has undoubtedly exacerbated this issue, with a recent article citing that women’s jobs are almost 1.8 times more vulnerable to the crisis than men’s. Women make up 39% of the global employment but account for 54% of the overall job losses. 

“The main reason for this is that the virus is significantly increasing the burden of unpaid care which is disproportionately carried out by women who are more vulnerable to Covid-19 related economic effects because of the existing gender inequalities.”

Cllr Mason also pointed to the approach of female world leaders in dealing with the pandemic to see the effectiveness of women in politics.

She said from Germany to New Zealand, Taiwan to Norway, women stepped up to show the world how to deal with the crisis, with research indicating that countries led by women had “systematically and significantly better Covid-19 outcomes”.  

The Slieve Croob councillor added: “Let’s look towards Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand as an example. It has been suggested that her down to earth and almost ‘mother-like’ approach has attributed to her success, not only in handling this crisis, but leading to her winning a landslide election only a few weeks ago. Compare this to the chaotic and haphazard approach taken by Boris Johnson and Donald Trump.”