Female participation in student politics examined in talk series

Cathal Brennan

A talk on female participation in student politics held in Devere Hall last week brought to light the poor participation of women in student politics. It was organised by Audrey Ellard Walsh, Gender Equality Officer for UCC Students’ Union, in effort to promote more female involvement in student politics in light of the upcoming Students’ Union elections on March 8th and 9th.

Speakers at the event were from a broad range of backgrounds. Fiona Buckley of the UCC Department of Government was first to speak, and highlighted the poor representation of women in national politics; she noted that Ireland was 23rd out of the 27 EU countries in terms of female participation in politics.

UCC Students’ Union President Keith O’Brien talked about how to run an effective election campaign, and the problems that might face female students running for election. When asked what advice he would give to a female candidate running for UCC SU President, Mr. O’Brien said that if he thought that the female candidate was suitably competent, he himself would not re-run for President this March.

Cathy Pembroke, Southern Area Officer for the Union of Students in Ireland, spoke about her time as Education Officer and then President of Waterford Institute of Technology Students’ Union. The first female President of WITSU in thirty eight years, she noted the importance of role models for women in national and university level politics, and the male culture currently dominating student politics throughout the country; she did, however, commend Letterkenny Institute of Technology, which has had a number of successive female Presidents in recent times.

Dr. Sandra McAvoy of the UCC Women’s Studies Department expressed her opinion that student politics is a starting point for getting involved in politics on a local or national level, and that it could be a launch pad for improving women’s involvement in particular. She advocated the establishment of support networks to help foster a culture of women in the sphere of politics.

Lorna Greene, a third year Arts student, attended the talk. “I think there’s a serious lack of discussion on campus about women’s issues. This is one of the first times that I’ve seen anything about it, so I said I’d come along and support”, she said at the interval. “A major issue for women entering politics is confidence, and a fear that when you enter politics, you will be ridiculed. You’re going to be turned into an object that’s either too sexual or not sexual enough, and that it’s a very intimidating atmosphere to be in.”

Linda Kelly, a former USI Equality Officer, former Chair of UCC Students’ Union Council and founder of Cork Feminista, also spoke at the talk. She said that women will not run for positions in a system that they feel doesn’t represent them properly. “I started in UCC in 2004. Out of 24 sabbats since then, there has only ever been 4 female sabbats. It is proven that if you don’t see yourself represented in a system, you’re less likely to get engaged with it, and run for positions within that system. That’s possibly the biggest challenge for women.”

Ms. Ellard Walsh was hopeful that the talk would inspire more female students to run for sabbatical positions. “When I was running for Gender Equality Officer, I put this talk as a point in my manifesto. Girls just aren’t running, they aren’t putting themselves forward for the higher positions even though some of them are so qualified and dedicated, and would be great.

“I would love to see an equality amongst the candidates who are running. Obviously, at the end of the day the best candidate will win the election, but girls are never going to win if they don’t run in the first place.”

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