Judith Cochrane article on ‘women in politics’ for Slugger O’Toole

Northern Ireland has seen momentous change since the 1970s. Politically, socially and culturally, we have made huge strides over the past few decades, and have become a more progressive and inclusive society.

Women have certainly come a long way. I feel fortunate to have been raised and educated in an age where girls were encouraged to explore their potential, to be ambitious and to pursue their passions. I grew up with the confidence that I could do anything I put my mind toward, and throughout my life I have been inspired by powerful female role models. It was due to the example and encouragement of my colleague, Naomi Long MP, that I was willing to step forward and run for public office.

Having served as a local Councillor from 2005, I was elected to the Assembly in 2011. From my previous experience in the private sector, I knew that women often faced barriers to progression in the workplace and over the past ten years, I have seen firsthand how underrepresented women are in both politics and the public sector as a whole. Though women comprise half of our population, the vast majority of leadership positions – in businesses, universities, and government – are occupied by men. The numbers are certainly skewed in the Northern Ireland Assembly, where I serve with only 20 other women out of 108 members.

There are various reasons why women shy away from politics; I know, because I used to think the same way. Who wants to spend their time in petty arguments, trying to get one up on another party and making empty promises? All hot air and little actual work – we all could name a few politicians like this – many of whom are men. However, some female politicians also give the job a bad name by focusing on appearances and photo opportunities, and having little of substance to offer. Who would want to be tarred with that same old brush?

Any politician worth their salt knows that it is about what you do, not what you promise to do. When I deliver results for my constituents, it transforms their perception of politicians.

I believe, therefore, that the media has a key role to play in encouraging more women into politics. Rather than choosing to run stories on female politicians whose photos will look good in print, we need to hear more stories about those women who are working hard for their communities. I, for one, try to do positive work every day – working with businesses, schools, community groups and older people to deliver real meaningful change in their day to day lives – but how much coverage is this given? Instead, the public is continually bombarded with negative news about politicians and it’s therefore no surprise that women are not keen on entering the public forum.

I haven’t given up though, and I am hopeful that we can divert our focus away from the negative and superficial aspects of politics, and as a result we will see more female candidates in the next elections. We deserve a more diverse, representative government – not through quotas, but through attracting the very best and brightest Northern Ireland has to offer. I know so many brilliant women who hold back in their careers for fear of being cut down. It’s time to put those fears behind us and create a more progressive society for us all.

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