Is the gender gap in politics closing?

With last week’s UK regional elections Northern Ireland’s DUP First Minister and her Scottish Nationalist counterpart Nicola Sturgeon boast the most commanding political leaderships seen here since Tony Blair’s New Labour landslide election victory almost 20 years ago.

In Scotland, actually, each of the three main parties – SNP, Conservatives and Labour – are led by women.

Across the continent, we regularly see Angela Merkel heading up summits dominated by male politicians; at the far side of the Atlantic Ocean we are watching Hillary Clinton seek to use her political leverage and experience gained as former US Secretary of State to “break the glass ceiling” and finally seal the first female Presidency.

So normalised is the role of women in politics in the US that in the race for the Democrat Presidential nomination a younger generation has largely flocked towards the more radical candidate Bernie Sanders for socio-economic solutions.

Polls show young Americans no longer believe the concept of a female presidency is an impossibility, but an inevitably. They’re just not too enthusiastic about a Hillary Clinton presidency.

Times are changing in Northern Ireland too when it comes to women’s representation in politics. This week Arlene Foster did not simply lead a host of DUP candidates to a successful election result. “Her candidates” will admit a large part of the campaign’s success can be attributed to its focus upon Foster herself.

At the last NI Assembly election in 2011, 20 of the 108 MLAs elected were female. This year, this number rose to 30.

The election saw newcomer female candidates outpolling, even ousting their own high profile party colleagues in some constituencies.

In Fermanagh and South Tyrone, for instance, Ulster Unionist Party candidate Rosemary Barton beat outgoing party MLA Alastair Patterson to a seat.

After an absence from frontline politics, Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew returns to the Assembly at the expense of party colleagues who stood for election.

In East Derry-Londonderry Sinn Féin’s Caoimhe Archibald’s victory came at the expense of outgoing party MLA Cathal Ó hOisin.

Let’s not forget Sinn Féin newcomer Catherine Seeley outpolling her running mate, and Education Minister for the past five years, John O’Dowd in Upper Bann.

In what must be a new record in Northern Ireland, now four of South Belfast’s six MLAs are women. Four other constituencies elected 3 female MLAs.

This is not to hint that the disparity between political representation and gender population figures does not exist. Far from it. There are constituencies here in which no female MLAs were elected at all.

Still, the gender gap at Stormont looks to be closing, if only gradually. And, interestingly, without the imposition of gender quotas.

Since 1998 Northern Ireland has seen 3 female political party leaders: Dawn Purvis (PUP), Margaret Ritchie (SDLP) and Arlene Foster (DUP).

Of the 30 female MLAs elected this week, there is certainly no shortage of potential female leaders across the parties.

As the parties work towards forging a new Programme for Government, speculation as to whether all will stay or some may go into Opposition is rife.

If parties do decide to opt out of the Executive and face each other over in the Assembly, it might not be too long before both the Executive and Opposition are led by women.

 

About Connor Daly

Connor is Editor of Northern Slant. His interests include politics, human rights, current affairs and communications.