The Bigger the Better: Female Candidates and Constituency Size in the 2007 General Election

Claire McGing, Dept of Geography, NUI Maynooth (Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences (IRCHSS) Scholar)

Some international scholars have suggested that large constituency sizes (the number of seats in a constituency is often called the ‘district magnitude’) are better for women candidates and female representation levels in parliament and local government. Larger constituencies often have higher levels of turnover at election time and can thus create ‘spaces of opportunity’ for politically-aspirant women. The advantage is also linked to ‘party magnitude’, this being the number of seats a party expects to win in a given constituency. If this is high political parties are more likely to ‘take a risk’ and run new women candidates alongside their (usually male) incumbents, and these women stand a better chance of winning the next seat.

How does this play out in an Irish context? Irish constituencies have very small district magnitudes in comparison to other democracies using a system of Proportional Representation. Our TDs are elected to 3, 4 or 5-seat constituencies, with an average of 3.9 in the last general election. This short blog will review female candidacy levels and their subsequent representation levels by constituency size in the 2007 general election.

Looking at the three main parties individually (see Figure 1 below), Fine Gael was the only party to conform fully to the expectations of the literature. Women made up only 6.7% (2 out of 30) of the candidates that they ran in 3-seat constituencies. They fared better in 4-seaters where they comprised of 17.9% of candidates (5/28) and even better in 5-seaters where they made up 24.2% (8/33). The opposite transpired for Fianna Fáil and Labour. For the former, 15.4% of candidates (6/39) selected to run in 3-seaters were women, yet only 9.1% (3/33) in 4-seaters and 14.3% (5/35) in 5-seaters. Interestingly, a third (6/18) of the candidates selected to run for Labour in 3-seaters were women. In contrast, 14.3% (2/14) of their 4-seater candidates were female and the figure for 5-seaters was 16.7% (3/18).

Yet a different pattern emerges when the political parties are looked at overall. Figure 2 below illustrates a distinct pattern – the larger the constituency, the larger the opportunity to run for politically-aspirant women. Looking at all female candidates, women comprised of 14.1% (22/156) of candidates in 3-seaters, 17.3% (27/156) in 4-seaters and 20.8% (33/159) in 5-seaters. A similar trend emerges when one examines Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael candidates combined, as well as all the female party candidates (see Figure 2). More seats leads to more female candidates. The most striking pattern emerges with regard to Independent and ‘Other’ candidates (those that did run not for the one of the six main parties). Only 3.6% (1/28) of these candidates in 2007 were female, yet 10.6% (5/47) in 4-seaters and 23.5% (8/34) in 5-seaters.

Interestingly, female success rates (Figure 3) and political representation rates (Figure 4) also differed by constituency size. While success rates for male candidates were similar across all constituencies, women were much more successful in 5-seaters (33.3% or 11/33) than in 3 (22.7% or 5/22) or 4-seaters (22.2% or 6/27). In the new Dáil, women comprised of only 9.3% (5/54) of TDs representing 3-seaters, 11.5% (6/52) in 4-seaters and the figure was as high as 18.3% (11/60) in 5-seaters.


The recent Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution recommended an increase in constituency sizes. Would this help the deficit in women’s electoral participation and political representation? The 2007 general election would suggest this to be the case. It will be interesting to see whether similar patterns emerge in 2011.


About Claire McGing

PhD student with interests in gender politics, electoral geography, candidate selection and political reform.
This entry was posted in Candidates, Constituency information, Election data, Gender, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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