After a week of celebrations for International Women's Day it is a good time to ask ourselves how far we have progressed towards equality in Ireland. The answer? There's still a long way to go.

In 2010 women still earn 17% less than men and are under-represented in the higher ranks of business and state boards. Women are responsible for most housework and caring duties, and pregnant women are finding themselves a soft target for employers hit by the recession.

If we look to our elected representatives for help we see part of the problem: only 13% of TDs and 16% of local councillors are women. Research has shown that a critical mass of female politicians is required for women-friendly policies to make it onto the statute books, and we fall well short.

But what measures can be brought in to increase the proportion of women in politics? Is there a place for gender quotas to ensure a minimum percentage of women are selected by their parties? Barriers to women's involvement in politics can be summarised in the 'Five Cs': Childcare, Cash, Confidence, Culture and Candidate selection procedures.

Measures are needed for better childcare facilities, cross-party fundraising networks for women, mentoring programmes and increased political education targeted at girls. However, the implementation of legally binding quotas is equally important, as unless political parties change their habits of selecting mostly male candidates, any other measures will be redundant.

Labour's Electoral (Gender Parity) Bill, unveiled for International Women's Day 2009, requires that political parties select a minimum of 20% female candidates or face a reduction in their state funding. Over time the required percentage of women candidates would increase to 40%. The bill contains a sunset clause so that it ceases to operate after 21 years, by which time a culture favourable to women politicians should have been established.

A common argument against quotas is that they are undemocratic and work against meritocracy, whereby the best candidates get selected. I believe a system in which 50% of the population is represented by 13% of TDs represents a much greater affront to democracy and fails to deliver the critical mass of women legislators required for true progress. Candidates are frequently selected for reasons other than merit, such as family connections or being favoured by the incumbent TD.

Gender quotas need not mean that "token" women candidates are selected who are not up to the job; rather they would ensure that all parties make the effort to seek out talented women and put the supports in place to get them elected.

Katherine Dunne is chair of Labour Women (women's section of the Labour Party)

editorial, page 17