I wasn’t originally intending on doing something like this, but it was International Womens Day this week and it got me thinking about gender bias in politics. Previous studies of the 2016 and 2002 General Elections have indicated that there’s no significant gender bias when it comes to first preference votes – although there’s a number of significant problems with baselining and confounding factors, as I’ll talk about below, but in the context of transfers.
The reason I looked at transfers as opposed to FPV is because I felt like it would be easier to establish a “control” group – across a wide population, you could put parameters in place allowing to isolate and measure the impact of gender.
This was not correct. You can stop reading here if you want, because the rest of the post is basically about how I wasted a day on this, but if you want to read about the challenges and some ancillary conclusions, please continue.
Firstly, the counfounding factors – incumbency, experience and geography all play significant roles, but its really unclear what the impact of each of these factors is, so its very hard to control for them. Even more difficult to control for is that some people are just “better” candidates. For example, Margaret Murphy-O’Mahony (FF) lost her seat to her colleague Christopher O’Sullivan, despite having incumbency and experience advantages. This didn’t come as a surprise to those with knowledge; I remember FF adjacent people telling me this would happen before the election. Similarly, parties aren’t afraid to put their thumb on the scale as happened with Fine Gael in Dublin Bay South, where by many accounts the local party wanted Eoghan Murphy returned ahead of Kate O’Connell.
So while gender is the obvious “difference” that would put Murphy ahead of O’Connell, or O’Sullivan ahead of Murphy-O’Mahony, not possible to pin either solely to this; there’s too many tangible and intangible factors to a successful candidacy.
Also, obviously, elimination order matters. If, for example, women get eliminated sooner than men, you have less women for transfers to go to as you move through the counts. That’s not even getting into the actual number preference given; which is fundamentally unknowable – even on the first count, if there’s a simultaneous elimination.
The problem with the baselining comes from the same route – there’s no “ideal” amount of votes transfers for a candidate to get. You can draw an average and compare it (as I have done), but how does it work across parties? There’s no overall control you can establish for an an “expected”, say, SF to FF transfer rate. There’s too many factors that go into it. For example, let’s look at Kildare South, which I have chosen because it illustrates a lot of the problems:
I mean, what do you even do with this? The two best-performing men didn’t transfer at all. Fianna Fáil transferred the most to women, but that’s mostly one Fianna Fáiler transferring to another. Similarly, Sinn Féin and Labour look really low, but there was only one female candidate left at that point – from FF – and an FF candidate, regardless of gender, wasn’t going to attract a lot of those transfers anyway. Ideological alignment ultimately does matter much much more than gender when it comes to transfers. Indeed, I’d argue it matters more than anything else, except maybe geography in some very specific instances.
So, now I’ve hopefully sufficiently caveated why these numbers aren’t going to be useful, here’s what I did. I emphasise again that the content of this section is not presented as data that conclusions about gender bias can be drawn from, because it is not. I am presenting it partly out of interest, and partly to illustrate a more concrete point later on.
To try to limit the impact of confounding ideology factors, I took three slices of data where transfer rates were generally relatively high – FF to FF transfers, FG to FG transfers and SF to PBP/S transfers (SF to SF were also high, but I did not include as it was so infrequent). Within these slices I then looked at transfer rates within four categories – female to female, female to male, male to male, male to female.
Two further caveats to this: for FF and FG transfers, I could only use numbers where one gender was being transferred to. For example, if a male FG candidate was eliminated with female and male FGers remaining, this was discarded as it would give an artificially low transfer rate, as it would split the amount. For SF to PBP, I only took numbers where there was no second SF candidate to transfer to.
Below is the transfer rate and the number of times each set of transfers occurred:
On top of the above, it’s clear that the low rate – even of the most significant transfer groupings – is problematic from a sample size POV. The data itself, in terms of measuring the impact of gender on transfer rates is completely useless. This is particularly evident in transfers to women in general. And this brings us to the actually relevant part of this article – and the actual gender problem in Irish elections.
I’ve used FF and FG here because they were the only parties that ran two or more candidates in more than a handful of constituencies; also SF aren’t super useful for this analysis because nearly all their candidates got elected. Women do get elected at a lower rate than men overall, but there’s three key factors here. Firstly, the number of women selected to run is appallingly low. There’s a minimum 30% quota and that seems to have been treated as a target rather than a lower limit; 30.95% of FF candidates were women, while FG – who Leo Varadkar assured us this week are not a conservative party – managed a whopping 30.49%. Both of these numbers are literally the lowest possible number they could have run without falling below the quota. This alone has a tremendously negative impact on the probability of a woman being elected.
Secondly, both parties engaged in some serious make-up-the-numbers stuff, adding female running-mates to male lead candidates in constituencies where there was zero chance of them getting elected. For example, FG gave Paschal Donohoue a running-mate in Dublin Central. Why? FG are never going to win two seats there, and Paschal isn’t retiring any time soon, so it’s hardly succession planning. It’s tokenistic quota-meeting.
Similarly, FF running a woman as a second candidate in Dublin Rathdown, where they had no chance of taking one seat, let alone two, can only be seen as tokenism to meet the quota. There’s a bunch of other places where this is true too, most notably Wexford where they ran a woman as a fourth candidate. This is, honestly, just taking the piss and making a mockery of the whole system designed to encourage female participation. There’s the argument that these no-hope runs are profile building for the future, but why then do you have three men running as well?
To illustrate this, please consider this table:
Leaving lead candidates aside for now, as I will come to this next, the key number is on the right-hand side. This takes the 2016 FPV, subtracts the lead candidate’s total from that election to give an idea of the likely amount of remaining FPV a second candidate can pick up. The above is an average of all constituencies. Theres a clear gender gap here, and while the numbers for most are okay – 9.1% or 9.6% can get you elected – the number of 5.9% indicates that, on average, a female second-or-lower candidate in GE 2020 for FF was going into a situation where they had no hope of being elected.
Thirdy, there are a lack of women as primary candidates. Now, this is perhaps somewhat natural given that the pool of those with experience is overwhelmingly male, but ultimately this approach is self perpetuating, and leaves you in the same problem you started with – running women to make up the numbers. If you look at these “primary” candidates (which I defined either as sole candidates, or based on incumbency, experience and performance in 2016 GE vs their running mates) the problem becomes even more clear:
Of the 14 lead female candidates fielded by FG and FF, itself a shockingly low figure, 9 were incumbents. Only three were neither current nor former members of the Oireachtas, and one of those, Mary Fitzpatrick (FF, Dublin Central), is now pretty much in the dreaded “perennial candidate” territory. Two incumbents were ousted by their own running-mates, both of which would have been avoidable had men not been added to the ballot to run with them (While Barry Ward didn’t beat Mary Mitchell-O’Connor in Dún Laoghaire, it is overwhelmingly likely that without a third candidate, FG would have won two seats there instead of one).
Emer Higgins in DMW was the only real breakthrough, though Aisling Dolan in Roscommon-Galway was close. But Higgins shows that putting newer women into lead candidate roles can work, but parties are unwilling to do so – indeed, they’re as likely to sabotage incumbents via poor candidate strategy as they are to put new people forward as their main candidate. It’s not clear that FG and FF have any real plan to develop new female candidates and put them in a place to succeed. Until that changes, expect to see the depressing pattern of women being stuffed onto ballots in places where they have no hope of winning, just to make up the numbers, continue.