Quotas are a means, not an end

Quotas will not automatically solve all problems - genuine change can only be brought about by the involvement of more women, and even then will certainly take generations to sink in

16 March 2017, 7:31am
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Whether or not one agrees with Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s proposal for gender quotas in Parliament, there can be no denying that Malta has a problem when it comes to gender representation in politics.

Across the world, just out of every five parliamentarians – 20% – is a woman. In Malta, we lag behind even this inauspicious statistic. Only 9 out of 71 MPs in the current legislature are women: our 13% places Malta at 142nd worldwide in terms of female representation in parliament, behind countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Guatemala.  

On a positive note, an outright majority of Malta’s MEPs (four out of six) are women; while Marie Louise Coleiro Preca is Malta’s second woman President in under 40 years.

Still, we clearly have far to go. It was to address this failing that Joseph Muscat proposed a mechanism which would add women MPs to the ones elected through the normal process. The general intention is commendable, and one tends to agree with the view that the issue can only be addressed through a systemic, legislative change.

The precise details are however as yet unclear, and one must tread with extreme caution when reforming an electoral system than hinges on a precise (within reason) correlation between votes cast and MPs elected. 

Muscat appears to be suggesting that the election should return seats according to the usual system; but that additional seats would be created to redress the gender imbalance. This, he hinted, would be done without any male MPs having to give up their seat.

The very idea that elected seats could be overturned by such a mechanism is in itself absurd, and Muscat was wise to discard it immediately. But at a glance, his proposed solution would radically increase the size of parliament.

Either way, it is inherently problematic – and up to a point unnecessary – to adjust the system after the votes have already been cast. One suspects that Muscat’s proposal was born of an impulse to resist a much simpler way to achieve the same result: a mandatory gender balance in the parties’ list of candidates. 

This is the source of the problem. In the 2013 election women only made up 14.8% of all candidates, and 14.5% of elected MPs were women. This, coupled with the success of female candidates in the 2014 MEP election, suggests that the Maltese electorate does not view gender as an issue when deciding how to vote. The real issue is that there are too few women to vote for on any of the parties’ lists.

Having said this, quotas will not automatically solve all problems. There is undeniably a perception that politics is an “old boys’ club”. Genuine change can only be brought about by the involvement of more women, and even then will certainly take generations to sink in. Unfortunately we are not currently well-positioned to speed up this acclimatisation process. With a toxic climate now enveloping the local political scene, young people are not encouraged to participate in politics at all, regardless of gender. If young people need to regain faith in politics, politics must also give them something worth believing in. So far it is clearly failing.

There are also structural issues which make it even less attractive for women. Making Parliament full time would not only address conflicts of interest that arise from the fact that MPs hold on to their jobs; but it would also make the career pathway more attractive to women. There is much that can be done even now to make the House of Representatives more family friendly: childcare facilities, breastfeeding policies, etc. One does not need the issue of gender equality to justify such changes: a healthy work/life balance should be an issue for both sexes, and serious change will only occur when family friendly measures are taken up by both men and women... and not perceived as something which only women benefit from. Longer parental leave for fathers can encourage more women to take up politics. 

Muscat’s proposal would not do anything to address these structural problems. A mandatory quota for party lists could well be the answer to both cultural and structural obstacles. These need not be 50% from the start, but could be gradually increased over a period of time. According to the United Nations, a threshold of at least 30% of female legislators is required to ensure that public policy reflects the needs of women.  

Admittedly, this system could create bigger problems for the smaller parties, but the reality is that a greater effort is needed by all, big and small. Do parties have a balanced representation within their own internal structures? The PN has women occupying the seats of party president, secretary-general and general council president. This might have not been by design, though it certainly boosts the PN’s image as a gender inclusive party. But it is clearly not enough. How many star candidates are women? How many shadow cabinet positions are filled by women?

Quotas might not resolve all these issues, but they would represent a start... and ‘starting’ is something we have not, to date, done.