he Good Friday Agreement includes the right for women to avail of full and equal political participation, and while women have made gains in this area, systemic barriers remain.
Women face significant challenges when it comes to candidate selection, childcare, confidence and increasing levels of online abuse and harassment.
Addressing these barriers requires a twin-pronged approach of legislative and cultural changes.
Representation shapes policy, and for the lived experiences of women — in all their diversity — to be adequately reflected in policy and decision-making, we need equal representation.
As an independent candidate in a largely rural constituency, I have faced additional challenges in that I don’t have a built-in base of volunteers or a party machine to roll out my messages, nor do I have funding to gain the kind of reach of some of my party-political counterparts, but what I have gained by running as an independent is full creative control over my policies.
This election has seen a sharp increase in vandalism, harassment and electoral interference. Like many, I’ve had posters, which came at great expense, removed and destroyed. These actions strike at the heart of democracy and are aimed at deterring would-be change-makers.
My advice for other women, particularly those in rural areas, is to get out into the community, speak with local community groups and link in with your local papers. National media coverage is great, but for an election local is even better.
Social media has the potential to be a great political equaliser, serving as an easily accessible platform capable of bolstering the profile of prospective candidates, but it can also be a challenging space with high levels of sexism and misogyny, which should always be reported. Entering public life does not make you “fair game” for threats and abuse.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help and advice. My door is always open to anyone who wants to discuss entering the political arena.
Connie Egan, North Down, Alliance Party
Being a woman in politics, especially a young woman, isn’t easy. I’ve faced my fair share of sexism, online abuse, patronising encounters on the doorsteps and creepy direct messages on social media. I was asked recently by a potential voter if I was crazy for getting involved so young.
It’s clear we have made progress as a society — there are more women than ever standing for this Assembly election, and women being promoted to leadership roles. But barriers still exist and we are still under-represented in political leadership.
In my experience in the council chamber and my work in Stormont, young women have to fight to be taken seriously and have their voices heard.
Everyone deserves to have a say in how our society is run. It’s wrong our decision-makers are so unrepresentative of our community. The unsociable working hours, lack of maternity leave and sexist abuse all contribute to women not putting themselves forward for election.
I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support and encouragement from those around me, and I’m standing in this election to encourage other young women to do the same.
I’d tell any woman wanting to get involved to go for it — you can change our society. Find an issue you care about, reach out to others who share your vision and get to work making change.
Change can happen in many ways, you don’t even have to be a member of a political party or an elected representative. Never underestimate the power of your voice as a campaigner or activist.
Jennifer Gilmour, North Down, DUP
I would encourage anyone with an interest in politics to get involved. Ultimately, an interest in politics is simply an interest in your local community. I want to see women coming forward, not because they’re part of a quota but because they’re passionate and able.
With young children, the challenges of childcare are something I know well and that’s why policies like 30 hours of free childcare per week are something I’m keen to highlight when speaking to people. Those cost of living issues are what’s most important to people currently and it’s hugely important to have a plan to put forward to build a better Northern Ireland.
It isn’t just women who have to juggle day to day family life with running an election campaign, but I think it is more difficult for many women.
Having a support network there to help when you’re out knocking doors is hugely important. I’m also very fortunate to have very supportive party colleagues who have supported me right from when I first stood for election to North Down Borough Council.
A passion for what you want to achieve is more important than anything else, and voters know just how important this election will be and the choice that faces Northern Ireland.
Liz Kimmins, Newry and Armagh, Sinn Féin
It is important that we encourage more women into politics, public life and management positions in general.
In order to ensure voices are heard at all levels, women need to be at the table.
We need to encourage more women to put themselves forward, ask women to take on elected roles and ensure they have the support behind them when they do, including any training and development they require.
As a mother I know some of the barriers that face women entering politics and the workplace in general in terms of childcare provision. These need to be addressed and more family-friendly working promoted, as this would benefit not only women but working parents in general.
In my own party women are at the core of the party and have been important to the party historically as well.
I really think we cannot truly represent all of society if we are not in there, and obviously that doesn’t just apply to women, it applies across the board.
We are living in a changing society. We need people from different backgrounds, gender, different cultures, ages and sexualities.
Everyone has something to offer. We all bring something unique to the table and if you feel like you want to get into politics, then go for it. Don’t let anything hold you back.
Jill Macauley, South Down, UUP
I have always had a strong loyalty to the Ulster Unionist Party and the type of pro-Union values that it represents. I’ve been a party member from my teens, have played an active role within South Down for the last 14 years, and served as a local councillor since 2016.
In 2006 I decided to take a career break when expecting my second child. A few months later there was an Assembly election called in early 2007.
Coming from a business and marketing background, and knowing the local UUP candidate at the time, I volunteered to help out on his election campaign. I then worked in the constituency office part-time and found that I thoroughly enjoyed the role, especially helping constituents, and able to balance family life too as a farmer’s wife and mum of four children.
I thoroughly enjoy working in politics, meeting many wonderful and varied people, and I really do get a genuine sense of achievement in helping people and my local community.
It can be challenging at times, and like many before me, at the start I had probably under-estimated how time-consuming the job can be. Family support is vital.
Women are under-represented in local politics and that is something that has to change. I am pleased to say that I have received a great deal of encouragement within the Ulster Unionist Party.
I believe that politics is too important a task to leave to other people and that you can’t ask someone to do a job that you are not prepared to do yourself. So, here I am.
Lorna Smyth, Lagan Valley, TUV
As a girl growing up in a working-class family, it never occurred to me that people like me, from families like mine, could enter into politics. But after my GCSEs I went off to college in Scotland and became interested in joining the Royal Air Force, which I did two years later.
I served for 12 years, both here at home and abroad. I learned invaluable life skills and met so many people from different backgrounds and cultures. But my interest in politics, particularly politics here at home, was never far underneath the surface. After I left service I was able to become more vocal, although living in Scotland I knew that I would only ever be able to be on the outside looking in, never able to change things.
After my daughter was born I moved back home as a single mother. I enrolled in university to study for a full-time degree but knew that politics was my main focus. I had watched from the outside for too long witnessing what was happening to my community. I knew that now was the time to take a stand and do something about it.
It is widely believed that politics is a man’s game, but we are seeing a shift in that regard. My experience since joining TUV and selected as a candidate has been nothing but positive — I couldn’t ask for better support or encouragement. I can only hope that other females aspiring to be politicians can take from my experience. If your heart is in it then let your background be your driving force.
Elsie Trainor, South Belfast, SDLP
Women aren’t a homogeneous group and in the context of discussing the challenges to women in politics it is important to remember that individual constraints and privileges vary widely.
I am one of seven brothers and two sisters and grew up in a home culture where my voice was heard and valued on current affairs, sport and family discussions from a young age. In leadership positions throughout my 20-year career I have never struggled to articulate my viewpoint.
I feel one of the biggest constraints for women in politics is similar to that of any other career.
Woman who have caring duties, be they childcare or care for the sick or elderly, often don’t have sufficient support available to accommodate their career progression.
This comes in the guise of cost of childcare and a deficit of care support and packages. Make no mistake, this is an equality issue. Within the workplace there is insufficient legislation to protect women’s roles when their personal circumstances change.
I am a mother of three young children. I have deprioritised my career significantly in the past five years, and though I should have a right to choose that, it shouldn’t be my only option.
Through my lived experiences I can see the obvious interventions we need to make to facilitate our right to full participation and career progression in work, whether that be in politics or elsewhere.
I believe politics requires a very whole-person approach, where other careers often just require you to be strong in a specialist area. My advice is: if you feel politics is for you, it likely is. Go for it and let the public decide if you are right.
Rachel Woods, North Down, Green Party
Politics is hard work, especially for women. Vile comments are made about women in the political arena, especially on social media. What they wear, what shoes they are wearing, what they look like, their hair, make-up, personal life, what age they are. I understand that being in the public eye does gain comments. The misogyny and constant hateful commentary is tough, though.
I think back to my time as a councillor, and it was very different from my experience as a MLA. It was very male-dominated and I experienced some, say, questionable views on women, the thinking that women should be “at home”, having babies and looking after “their man”, not in a political chamber. I would be there to chair a meeting and I’d be asked to “make tea”, or be touched as people moved past you. It’s all apparently a joke, but it’s not funny. My experience in the Assembly has definitely been better, though.
But the ups of being in politics far outweigh the downs. You have a platform to help people and raise issues. You give people advice, you listen to their stories. You get to make legislation and policy. I recognise I’m really privileged to be in this position.
My advice for anyone wanting to get involved in politics is to scope it out, get involved in your community and ask your political representatives about their experience.
You might not want to stand for election, but you may want to volunteer or to work on policy — there are so many areas. But if electoral politics is something that you want to do, go for it.