Are gender quotas for Dail candidates justified? If so, are they sufficient or do we also require gender quotas in cabinet?

Leo Varadkar has picked his cabinet and has received criticism from various quarters for the lack of women among his ministers. This comes in the wake of Justin Trudeau of Canada and Emmanuel Macron of France both having received praise for selecting gender-balanced cabinets[1][2][3][4].

This, the 32nd Dail, was the first elected under gender quotas for candidates. No fewer than 30% of a party’s candidates had to be women in order for that party to receive its full allocation of state funding. That requirement will increase to 40% from 2023 onwards.

Candidate quotas were introduced in (belated) response to strong evidence of a systemic bias against women in Irish politics. It is telling, for example, that in a country with proportional representation and where more than 50% of the electorate are women, the proportion of female TDs had, prior to gender quotas, never exceed 16%.

Quotas promise to directly address the symptoms of gender-bias but also offer a credible remedy for the underlying causes. Specifically, quotas can support the “critical mass” of women candidates and TDs required to tackle the systemic issues that small, scattered groups of women have little chance of effectively addressing.

It is, perhaps, too early to know whether the desired “critical mass” effects will materialise but based purely on the numbers, gender quotas for Dail candidates would appear to have been a modest success. 163 women stood in for election in 2016 (a 90% increase on the previous election in 2011) and 35 were elected, comprising 22% of all TDs.

Nonetheless, it should be remembered that candidate quotas were not without controversy and that they faced local resistance and legal challenge when introduced. Many of the objections raised were of the “candidates should be picked on merit alone” variety. However, these complaints ignore the fact that “merit” is subjective and therefore open to the kind of bias that quotas are trying to redress. That is not to say that all arguments against quotas are wholly unreasonable. Quotas can often benefit the most privileged of the “disadvantaged” group while limiting opportunity for the least privileged of the “advantaged” group. Quotas can also serve to undermine the credibility and legitimacy of those they were designed to help.

For example, over time it may become apparent that the cohort of new female candidates that quotas have encouraged into politics is dominated by well-connected daughters and nieces of political families while the men losing out tend to be those from under-privileged or minority backgrounds. It may also be the case that in the future increases in the number of women TDs will stall, as the stigma of being a “quota candidate” becomes attached to all women running for office.

Of course, it is also possible that none of these things will happen. Certainly (and accepting the fact that it may just be too early to tell) I am not aware of any evidence to suggest that they are happening.

In any case, to the extent that quotas give rise to the concern that lower-quality candidates will be put forward for election, we may draw comfort from the fact that the electorate still retains the final say on who they send to the Dail. The electorate is free to balance the merits of all candidates in whatever way they see fit and need not select a single woman should they not wish to.

Given the clear indications of gender-bias in candidate selection, the lack of evidence of undesirable side-effects and the fact that ultimate discretion remains with the electorate, candidate-quotas would appear to be a proportionate solution to a real problem.

However, the same cannot be said about gender quotas for cabinet positions.

In the first instance, there is no compelling evidence of gender bias in the process by which ministers are selected. As mentioned, 22% of TDs are women. Coincidentally, 22% of Fine Gael TDs are women also. All things being equal, we would expect similar proportions of women in cabinet. In fact, 28% of senior ministers are women. Gender quotas for the cabinet would seem to be a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

However, the main objection to cabinet quotas is that they remove discretion from those to who should more properly and accountably hold it. Under our constitution, the electorate elect the Dail, the Dail elects the Taoiseach and the Taoiseach selects his cabinet. The Taoiseach is accountable to the Dail and, ultimately, the electorate.

Mandatory cabinet quotas would reduce the discretion of the Taoiseach and, in so doing, presume to be a better judge of good government than the person elected by the people to make that decision.

Of course, the Taoiseach may decide to select his cabinet using “self-imposed” quotas, just as Trudeau and Macron have done. It may well be the case that he would do so having come to the conclusion that it is a proportionate and effective way to promote equal opportunities for women. On the other hand (and forgive me for my cynicism) it may simply be a politically expedient way for a Taoiseach to cultivate his own personal popularity. Nonetheless, such is politics.

The point is not that the Taoiseach – any Taoiseach – will always choose his cabinet with the noblest intent. Nor am I saying that there are no good arguments for bringing more women into the executive.  The point is simply that our system of government delegates cabinet selection to the Taoiseach for a good reasons; firstly so that all options may be weighed in the context of current circumstances and secondly so that, whatever cabinet is chosen, the Taoiseach may be held accountable for it. Quotas don’t consider circumstances and cannot be held accountable by anyone.


It is reasonable to suspect that if we lived in a world where men and women actually had equal opportunities our cabinet would already be gender-balanced. It is understandable that many people would be impatient for such an outcome. However, the evidence suggests that the solution lies in getting more women elected to the Dail and quotas are already in place to that end. Introducing quotas for cabinet selection is a solution to a gender bias that cannot be shown to exist and presumes to know what the electorate and their representatives ought to choose rather than respecting what they have chosen.

[1]  “Gender matters Leo. To win elections you need women’s support too”; Lorraine Courtney,, 22/06/2017

[2]  “It’s not enough to be the example, Leo, you have to lead by example too”; Fionnan Sheahan, Irish Indpendent 26/06/2017

[3]  “Varadkar fails to follow Macron on Cabinet gender balance”; Irish Times, 14/06/2017

[4]  “Leo models himself on Macron and Trudeau, but he’s not living up to them when it comes to gender balance”;, 20/06/2017

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