It should be ‘Madam Speaker’ next

Ultimately, however, the only way to increase female participation in political life, is to simply stop expecting women to ‘change themselves’, by having to adapt to structures created by men

The so-called ‘gender corrective mechanism’, introduced for the first time in this election, has from the outset been the subject of much controversy.

Some of this criticism has certainly been justified. The results of this election, for instance, have clearly given credence to arguments by ADPD, and independent candidate Arnold Cassola, that the mechanism itself ‘discriminates against smaller parties’.

As Cassola put it: “ADPD candidate Sandra Gauci got more votes than PL candidate Davina Sammut Hili; however the mechanism benefitted Sammut Hili and elected her to Parliament.”

This example illustrates much that is flawed with this particular mechanism. For while it can be seen to have delivered on its primary goal – by ensuring the election of one female candidate (Sammut Hili) - it remains a fact that the electorate had given its preference to another, equally female candidate (Gauci) instead.

Clearly, then, it is not enough for a ‘gender corrective mechanism’ to simply elect more women to parliament, as an end in itself. The choice of women who benefit from it, must also coincide, as near as possible, with the democratic choice made by voters in the election.

Having said this: no criticism has ever really been directed at the mchanism’s declared aims. It seems there is broad consensus regarding the need to ensure greater Parliamentary representation for women; and that is understandable enough, in a country where over 80% of parliamentary seats get to be occupied exclusively by men.

Nonetheless, the results of the last election also ‘vindicate’ the same mechanism, up to a certain extent. For had it not been introduced at all, only 10 women would have made it to Parliament on their own steam; of whom only four were elected by the first-count vote; while the remaining six were elected in subsequent casual elections.    

But with the addition of 12 female MPs through this mechanism, we will have how a total of 22 woman, out of 79 MPs. This means that 28% of MPs are now women: the highest ever gender ratio in Maltese political history.   

Naturally, this does not cancel out any of the aforementioned flaws; but it does suggest that the aim should now be to address the flaws within the system; rather than the system as a whole.

Now more than ever, then, it is crucial that women elected to Parliament work together across party lines, to push for legislation which not only contributes to equality; but, more importantly, creates a political environment and culture which encourages more female participation in politics and parliamentary life.   

This is the only way to ensure that any increase in female representation, does not come about at the expense of the people’s democratic will.

Therefore we endorse the suggestion made by University of Malta pro-rector Prof. Carmen Sammut – who was also part of the team that drafted the gender quotas law - that female MPs should form a “cross-party women’s caucus.”   

In this way, female MPs can work together to not only ensure cross-party support for bills supporting gender equality; but also to ensure that all bills discussed in parliament take women into account.   

Such a caucus could also address practical aspects which may hinder female participation: like having a childcare centre for MPs; or giving greater attention to work and family balance, when setting Parliament’s agenda.  

In this context, it would make sense for Prime Minister Abela to appoint a woman as the next Speaker of the House.  At the very least, it is imperative that the person chosen for this role is someone well-versed in gender issues.  

In an ideal world, it would not matter much whether that person is male or a female; in reality, however, appointing a woman to this role would send out a clear signal to the political class. It would ensure greater sensitivity to issues faced by female parliamentarians; while giving impetus to those reforms required to enhance this representation.  

It is also of crucial importance that political parties enact their own gender equality plans, to ensure that by the next election, a significant percentage of the candidates they themselves present are women.  

For one risk of the gender mechanism is that voters may  think that they do not need to vote for women; as these will still be elected anyway.  One way to avoid this, is to ensure that all political parties introduce gender quotas; and/or actively promote female candidates.  

Moreover, parties could also start addressing the issues which may discourage women from joining their ranks: for instance, by appointing a gender equality commissioner tasked with reforming party structures to accommodate the needs of women. Issues like harassment, verbal abuse and sexist language within parties, should also be addressed head-on, through the creation of appropriate structures.    

Ultimately, however, the only way to increase female participation in political life, is to simply stop expecting women to ‘change themselves’, by having to adapt to structures created by men. Only by changing those very structures - in a way that women do not have to ‘act like men’, to be politically successful – can we truly hasten our pace towards gender-equality.