Catching up with women’s rights

 Malta still lags very far behind the rest of Europe in a number of cardinal points

Equality laws which prohibit employers from asking questions about private matters are often disregarded in practice
Equality laws which prohibit employers from asking questions about private matters are often disregarded in practice

As Malta observes International Women’s Day this Wednesday, it may be pertinent to reflect on the actual state of equality between the sexes today. 

Malta’s case is perhaps unlike that of other European countries, in that public awareness of gender issues emerged considerably later here than elsewhere. A documentary screened at St James Cavalier by the Aditus Foundation last Friday offered a fascinating insight into the eariliest origins of the phenomenon.

Entitled ‘Burning Bikinis’, the film explored the state of women’s rights in Malta in the 1960s: portraying in the process a vastly different Malta from the one that exists today, only 60 years later. Ideas which were beginning to turn mainstream in other parts of the world – not least, that a woman is entitled to full equality with man, and that assertiveness and emancipation were ideals worth pursuing – were clearly alien to a country which never really experienced the global turmoil of 1968.

Immediately, one is struck by how very far we have come since then... though that is, in itself, also a reflection of how far we lagged behind at the time. Though the central issue explored in the film concerned public morality, what also emerged was the overwhelmingly widespread perception (even, it must be said, among women at the time) of ‘woman’ as a subordinate accessory in what was essentially an-ultra patriarchal society.

While Malta still struggles to address a marked deficit in women occupying more senior positions in both professional and political careers... it is worth remembering that, as recently as the 1960s, the idea of women working at all was still considered ‘shocking’. A very vocal debate existed at the time, in which women who aspired to become anything more than ‘good mothers’ or ‘good wives’ were often held in popular contempt.

At a glance it is hard to reconcile that image with the one today in which so many incentives are being introduced to entice more women to the workplace: free day care centres, baby-friendly work environments, and so on. And the social changes do not stop there, either. Interviews with several pioneers from the earliest feminist movements – which actually only emerged in the 1970s, in step with other far-reaching social reforms of the time – also give insights into the more repressive aspects of gender stereotyping.

Naturally we would be deluding ourselves to think that such perceptions have vanished since then. But clearly we have progressed beyond the stage where a woman is regarded as ‘immodest’ (or a ‘mara hazina’, in the parlance of the time) simply for paying attention to her appearance, or choosing a university education over the life of a housewife.

Nonetheless, the film also illustrates how very slow the pace of change has been. Sixty years later, Malta still lags very far behind the rest of Europe in a number of cardinal points. Foremost of these is female presence in the workforce, especially in senior (managerial) positions. Before even discussing issues such as equal pay for equal work, we must ensure that employment and career opportunities are equal, too. 

This is easier said than done. Gender stereotyping is not merely the product of antiquated social prejudices; in Malta there have been consistent lobbies against legislative interference in internal commercial decisions (employment, promotions, etc). In the past, this might have extended to the sort of social reasoning of the 1960s (in 2004, for instance, the Church ran a billboard campaign to counter the government’s drive for more working women); but the business community itself has been resistant also.

Equality laws which prohibit employers from asking questions about private matters – such as whether a female job applicant plans to ever get married and have children – are often disregarded in practice. It is admittedly difficult to quantify such issues, but the impression one gets is that sexism at the workplace is still very much a reality across the board... though, unlike previous decades, we are at least aware that it shouldn’t be.

The question to ask on International Women’s Day is whether this awareness is strong enough to bring about a more meaningful equality. In some areas, the evidence appears hopeful.

Politics may well be a pivotal example of a change waiting to happen. Traditionally, women have always fared badly in terms of actual representation in parliament; and then again, even worse when it comes to landing senior Cabinet roles once elected.

This is however changing. Female participation on the ballot sheet remains pitifully low by European standards... but the percentage of those candidates to get elected is proportionately high. This suggests that the Maltese electorate has no apparent issue with voting for female candidates. Perhaps the clearest case for this was the last European election, in which four out of the six MEP seats were won by women.

This is encouraging because it suggests that public attitudes towards politics, as a traditionally ‘male’ career pathway, are beginning to significantly change. It remains to be seen whether (or how) Malta’s political parties will respond to the electoral message, but the message itself is clear.

Malta as a whole is ready to embrace full gender equality; some parts, however, may still need to catch up.

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