Special event highlights low numbers of women on council
The 20 seats of Westmeath County Council were filled for a meeting, but not all by elected representatives, on Monday of last week.
In a depiction of what gender inequity looks like, the present configuration of Westmeath County Council – four female councillors and 16 male councillors – was reversed, and 16 women took part, along with four of the county’s male representatives.
The event was held as part of International Women’s Day 2023 and a cross-party and cross-county network of female councillors from 13 local authorities who form the WoMeN’s (Western, Midlands and Northern) Regional Caucus were behind the project, for which councils across the region ‘flipped’ for the day.
Showing the flexibility of Westmeath County Council meetings, the cathaoirleach, Cllr Aengus O’Rourke, Cllr Aoife Davitt and Cllr Louise Heavin joined the meeting online. The meeting was chaired by the mayor of the Mullingar Kinnegad Municipal District, Cllr Hazel Smyth, and she was joined in the chamber by her elected colleagues, Cllrs Emily Wallace, John Shaw, Denis Leonard and Frank McDermott.
Cllr O’Rourke recorded his support for the WoMeN’s Regional Caucus and welcomed everyone to the council chamber for the event.
Cllr Smyth praised the steps being taken to address inequity issues in the council chambers, including the funding that was secured for a family friendly room at the chambers and a baby changing facility to encourage more people with caring responsibilities to run for election; as well as information leaflets, videos and a recent workshop for potential political candidates.
She emphasised how important diversity is in councils and gave the example of how greater diversity on jury panels has been shown to lead to decisions that are debated more vigorously and ultimately to what are viewed as better outcomes.
Caucus member Cllr Wallace said that growing up, neither she nor Cllr Aoife Davitt saw differentiation on gender and both were the first women to play on their club’s hurling team. They urged women to step forward. Cllr Wallace spoke of the need to “lead by example” and the importance of keeping women involved.
Dr Michelle Maher, programme manager with See Her Elected (SHE), who lives in Mullingar, said: “When you look at politics from an equality perspective, everyone has the same rights to run for election. But when you look at equity, the low numbers of women in many county councils tells us that additional resources are needed so that are councils are more diverse and more closely resemble the population they represent.”
Polish national Gosia Kamboj noted that despite a sizeable Polish population in the county, there were no Polish councillors, lending to a sense that they were not completely represented. Her daughter, Maya Kamboj, a first-year science student in UCD, who is part of the 2023 Washington Ireland Programme and the former head girl at St Finian’s College, Mullingar, spoke of the importance of female role models for young women and the need for younger people’s perspectives to be heard in council decision-making.
Confidence was a recurring theme and there were suggestions that more young people, students and schoolchildren be encouraged into the council chamber for meetings to demystify local politics as part of encouraging wider confidence to run for election.
Women present spoke of being “flat out in the community” and “being late starters in their interest in politics” or “not understanding much about politics”. Nevertheless, they were “sick of small steps” and were ready to change the face of Westmeath County Council by bringing their expertise and “ability to disrupt the status quo” into the chamber.
Athonia Izekor from Kinnegad said she was driven by a passion for inclusion in local politics. “It is one thing to see it at an event like today, but we actually need to believe that we have a right to be here,” she said, referring to commentary from locals of African heritage that voters may not accept them.
Sarah Kirwan, a TY student currently undertaking work experience with Cllr Smyth, gave the closing contribution: “Seeing a council of older white men is discouraging to a young woman.”
The councillors present welcomed all the contributions. Cllr Denis Leonard added to the theme of education, noting that “conditioning into gendered roles starts early”. He added that the upcoming announcement of a referendum regarding the constitutional provision on women’s place being in the home was welcome.
Cllr Louise Heavin, attending remotely, said: “How pleasing it was to see a council chamber full of women,” and urged greater access to live streaming to broaden the number of people who could exercise their right to observe council and municipal district meetings.
Cllr John Shaw spoke about how daunting he found politics at first, and recognised how much more daunting the council chamber must be if you don’t see many people, or any people, like yourself when you walk in.
Cllr Frank McDermott welcomed and fully supported the effort painted by a picture of a council meeting where the gender of those present was the opposite of the elected membership and said he “hoped it was the start of something much bigger in terms of a more inclusive politics for Westmeath”.
Westmeath County Council support action to address the lack of gender and diversity in local government with their ‘A More Inclusive Politics for Westmeath’ project, and information on that is on their website.
The WoMeN’s Regional Caucus is a pilot project and was brought about through a collaboration between the Association of Irish Local Government (AILG) and See Her Elected (SHE).
The WoMeN’s Regional Caucus covers the following councils (number of women councillors): Donegal (4), Leitrim (3), Sligo (3), Mayo (2), Galway County (7), Galway City (5), Roscommon (4) Cavan (4), Monaghan (2), Longford (2), Westmeath (4), Laois (4), Offaly (1). The gender balance of Councillors in the counties belonging to the MNW caucus is 42 women and 245 men.