Women still unequal on their day

Measures that disrupt and short-circuit structures of equality are indeed necessary, but they must also start deep inside the culture of politics

On the occasion of Women’s Day last Friday, it would be remiss not to take note of the conclusions of the 2018 Report on Equality between Women & Men in the EU.  

Its findings were highlighted by Claudette Buttigieg, one of Malta’s only ten (out of 71) female members of Parliament, to point that out that – for all Malta’s apparent advances in gender equality in recent years – Malta still languishes at practically the bottom of almost every gender equality table.

Malta places second-before-last (after Estonia) for the number of women on boards (10%). In gender gap (in employment), Malta places third from bottom. Moreover, Eurostat’s more recent Gender Pay Gap Report 2019 shows that the difference in pay between males and females has continued to grow, from 7.7% in 2011 to 12.2% in 2019. So, where a man earns €100 a woman doing the same job, at the same rank, would earn €87.80... for no other reason other than being a woman. 

The EU’s Pension and Adequacy Report 2018 also found that a man’s pension works out at almost double that of a woman – a difference of 44.8%. And in the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report Malta slipped from 84th place out of 149 countries in 2013, to 91st place last year. Sticking only to the issue of female representation in Parliament – which stands at a dismal 14% – the imbalance may well be a matter of some urgency. Apart from being problematic in its own right – surely, a 50-50% national gender split could be better approximated – it may also create additional problems of its own. 

At present, prime ministers have an extremely limited pool of female MPs to choose from when selecting a Cabinet; in practice, this may well end up meaning that being female, and elected to Parliament, is of itself automatic ‘qualification’ for a senior Cabinet post.

There are other possible administrative headaches. In the past, we have seen Malta’s all-male nominees for the post of European Court judge turned down: it is arguably a matter of time before external forces are exerted upon us to finally ensure a healthier balance in the House of Representatives.  

Clearly – as both the aforementioned interviewees concur – ‘something needs to be done’. That said, it remains debatable exactly what.

Discussions are already underway for a mechanism to ensure fairer representation. Details have so far been sketchy, but they seem to include a proposal for a quota system. The model indicates apportioning an increase of MPs from the under-represented gender in the House of Representatives to two parties (and only to two parties to ensure strict equality), 

While the intention is no doubt commendable, this approach would prove problematic in practice. For one thing, it appears a clumsy and ham-fisted way of disrupting the old boys’ network. Moreover, the cross-party consensus is less clear on the subject of a quota system. Nationalist MEP Roberta Metsola argues that “gender quotas are merely a smokescreen which fail to tackle the core problem behind poor female representation in Malta; and that quotas would be a form of regression, which end up holding women back and create barriers for them in the future.”

In its defence, the Labour government can point towards the success of its own internal (temporary) quotas; but there is a difference between a political party, and a Parliament elected in a democratic vote.

However, the proposed system may not be addressing the root cause of the imbalance. Prior research by Prof John A. Lane has shown that our electoral system statistically offers as much chance to women as to men to be elected in the House. It may therefore be that women are either choosing not to enter politics, or face undue obstacles at party level.

For example, why is Malta’s House of Representatives not already catering for the family-friendly measures (such as the times for parliamentary sessions) that parents need to be able to pursue a political career? More importantly, why cannot MPs be full-time, well-paid representatives that offer a suitable salary for breadwinners and parents with young families?

And why should parties which acquired more than [eg] 20% of the national vote in a previous election, not be compelled to field an equal amount of men and women (or other genders) in their candidate lists, so that there is a parity at the start of the election?

It is not just about politics, naturally. As recent research by Dr JosAnn Cutajar has shown this week, even educated women inside old boys’ networks such as financial services are being paid less than men – at 23% the gender gap in financial services is double the average gender gap.

So measures that disrupt and short-circuit structures of equality are indeed necessary, but they must also start deep inside the culture of politics.

***

George Vella joins an illustrious line-up of heads of state who have made the Maltese republic proud in this ceremonial, yet significant, constitutional role. 

Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca did not just give the Maltese presidency the stamp of her lifelong commitment to social solidarity. Coleiro Preca gave the Republic the timbre of its enfranchising, emancipatory and social democratic roots. At times her willingness to be close to the people – for she endeavoured to reach out to the most vulnerable of people at all times – necessitated lowering the lofty seat of Head of State, and for this many people’s hearts were touched. More remarkably, her Republic Day speeches are fundamental declarations that captured the state and spirit of the nation more adeptly than any other politician. Such can be the power of the President of the Republic to inspire. 

George Vella now sees thrust upon him an urgent constitutional reform that will require statesmanship, persuasion, diplomacy and the bone-deep confidence of the political veteran to deliver. Vella and Coleiro Preca belong to the same generation of socialist politicians that predate the sharp edges of Joseph Muscat’s neoliberal turnaround. Nobody can predict what the next five years of politicking might deliver to the President’s desk; perhaps the most unpalatable of laws. Vella will be looked upon to serve as a guide who can impart impassioned critique of Maltese society and politics, but also the necessary subservience to the will of the people in the House of Representatives. 

More in Editorial