Last week US presidential candidate Joe Biden announced his vice-presidential running-mate as Kamala Harris, Senator and former Attorney General of California. Making good on his promise in March to select a female running-mate, Biden describes her as “a first-rate intellect, a first-rate candidate and a real competitor.”

Harris is a graduate of law, with experience in the judicial, executive and legislative branches of government. She served two terms as a district attorney in San Francisco before going on to become Attorney General of California in 2010, and again in 2014. She was elected to the Senate in November, and gained notoriety for her tough questioning skills, particularly during the hearing of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanagh. She began her Democratic presidential nominee campaign in January of last year, although she dropped out in December 2019 due to a lack of funds and endorsed Biden in March.

Clearly, being female is least of the characteristics which make Harris a formidable choice for vice-president, or perhaps even future president. There have been suggestions that Biden’s running mate pick could also be his potential successor. At the age of 77, he is unlikely to run for a successive term, so if he were to be successful come November, there is a strong chance that Harris would succeed him and become the first female president of the United States. Thus, the possibility of a female president in the US is looking increasingly likely, with Hillary Clinton coming close in 2016 and now Harris a possible candidate for 2024.

Is Ireland as close to electing a female head of state? It seems we may still have some way to go. The 33rd Dáil is made up of 22.5% of women, a dramatic increase from previous years, yet still nowhere near where we want to be, in the eyes of many. Politics has been a male dominated domain for too long, and the increase in numbers of women being elected to is a welcome development.

While I’m wholeheartedly in favour of making the entry into politics more accessible for women, I get uneasy when it comes to talking about how we do this and how far we are willing to manipulate the political process to achieve this end. In 2011, the Irish government introduced an electoral gender quota with the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act 2012. This legislation said that funding to parties would be halved unless 30 percent of their candidates at the next general election were women.

While quotas like these may be well intentioned, in my opinion, they undermine the ability of women to be successful in politics without being given some kind of hand-out. I cannot speak for all women, but if it were me, I would want there to be no doubt that it was my competence and capability, and not the immutable characteristic of my gender, that got me elected. Whether it’s a quota for gender representation in political party members, or a “promise” by a presidential candidate to select a female second, my mind is set when it comes to giving men brownie points for offering to allow women into their political circles. Besides, how can we talk about achieving a certain gender ratio in government, when elected representatives are not even given maternity leave? Perhaps doing something about obvious barriers like these should be the focus if we really want to do something about gender imbalance in Irish politics.

Sadhbh O’Muirí – Reporter