OPINION: Criticism of female politicians' appearance needs to be called out
This article is by Mairead O'Shea, the Communications Officer with See Her Elected, an organisation which aims to empower women in the rural constituencies of the North West and Midlands to engage in electoral politics:
An opinion piece in last weekend's Irish Mail on Sunday, which strongly criticised the clothes and appearance of a number of female Fianna Fáil TDs at the party's national think-in last week, has quite rightly caused somewhat of a furore across social media platforms.
TDs Niamh Smyth, Norma Foley and Mary Butler along with their party colleagues Senators Erin McGreehan and Fiona O’Loughlin were subjected to an unacceptable critique of their clothes and appearance.
See Her Elected recognise this for what it is - lazy, unprofessional journalism and a deliberately provocative and unhelpful act by the Irish Mail on Sunday. Women are already subjected to a myriad of obstacles on entering political life or becoming engaging in politics, without having to put up with this nonsense.
Unfortunately, the very fact that the story is being discussed on national and local airwaves and causing outrage on Twitter means that to some extent this headline grabbing act worked.
Let’s look at some facts. The weekend newspaper market, and in particular the Sunday market, is heavily saturated as a number of print titles jostle for position. The Irish Mail on Sunday is struggling against dominant players such as the Sunday Independent, the Sunday World and the Sunday Times.
According to the most recently available Audited Bureau of Circulation (ABC) figures, circulation for the Irish Mail on Sunday has fallen to around 55,000 which represents a decline of 10% on the previous year and leaves them straggling behind others.
In this context, what better way to help boost your circulation figures than to rattle a few cages with a provocative and headline grabbing act such as last Sunday's opinion piece?
It is a shame that a much more measured article covering women's groups calling for political leadership when members or candidates engage in online abuse, and which was featured just 10 pages earlier in the same edition of the same paper, did not receive any attention.
Politics can be a toxic space. While public attention is part and parcel of the role for politicians, public scrutiny should only apply when it comes to their work and conduct, not the style of their hair or colour of their outfit. I am sure when Mary Butler or Niamh Smyth wake up in the morning, they have more to be worried about than whether their pink or orange dress is going to cause a Twitter meltdown.
Female politicians, just like their male counterparts, are busy professionals, representing their constituents, and getting on with a myriad of other things. We need to call out this type of harassment for what it is. Abuse. Indeed, all politicians and party leaders need to stand up for their colleagues when this type of abuse is levelled.
Ireland is ranked 101st globally for female parliamentarians. Women account for just 22.5% of TDs and 40% of Senators. Just four of the 15 Cabinet ministers are female.
Of the 949 county councillors in Ireland just 241, or 25%, are women and that figure is even lower in rural counties than urban centres in Dublin. The SHE (See Her Elected) Programme seeks to empower more women in rural counties of Longford, Roscommon, Leitrim, Sligo, Donegal, and Westmeath to engage in electoral politics and also examines barriers to women entering politics.
Like it or loathe it, cultural institutions such as the media do play a significant role in shaping society's perception of women politicians and this type of gender biased article is unhelpful.
We need to empower women to achieve entry to the political arena, as this will bring more balanced decision making. Our council chambers need to reflect the society they represent. They need to be more diverse and inclusive, with women from ethnic minorities, disabled women and Traveller women being represented.
The unique perspectives of women do not need to be feared but rather embraced as part of a collective strength which can only benefit and enhance the political system. Surely that's what matters more than the (non-existent) creases on Senator Erin McGreehan's green dress!