Women on the verge of disagreeing about quotas

The European Commission’s proposal for quotas on non-executive boards took center-stage at a meeting of female candidates from all parties, organized by the National Council of Women.

Good quotas: Helena Dalli said that in a country where more women graduated from University, it's plainly incorrect to assume  women are automatically less qualified or numerous) than men.
Good quotas: Helena Dalli said that in a country where more women graduated from University, it's plainly incorrect to assume women are automatically less qualified or numerous) than men.

As categories go, 'women' may well be identified as a single voter segment, to add to all the other social categories and/or special interest groups singled out for attention during any electoral campaign. But judging by the often wildly contrasting views expressed by female candidates at an NCW forum this morning, it remains very far from a homogenous grouping.

Nor were all these differences neatly polarized between political parties. Nationalist candidates often found themselves nodding in agreement with their Labour counterparts (and vice versa), when these complained the logistical problems juggling a career with the commitments of parenthood. And there were occasional 'internal' differences too: such as on the European Commission's gender proposal (erroneously described as a 'directive', despite the fact that it is very far from being legally enforceable); and also on the issue of gay rights - in particular gay adoption, which could be seen to pose difficulties to the more 'traditional' candidates.

In fact, about the only thing on which there was clear agreement by all speakers (Labour, PN and AD) was the need for more female representation across the board. But when it came to how such representation should be achieved in practice - in particular, when asked directly for their views on a European Commission proposal for mandatory 40% quotas on non-executive boards - the division of opinion was immediately apparent.

The issue revolved around whether this proposal - which incidentally has been formally opposed by Malta (among other states), though there are indications of a shift in position - was a slap in the face of meritocracy. With quotas in place (this argument goes), 'undeserving' women may be selected merely to create a token sense of gender balance... even at the expense of better qualified male candidates.

This view was implicit in the representations of two Nationalists candidates - Caroline Galea and Kristy Debono, though to be fair both admitted that they themselves were in two minds about this definition.

Both PN candidates argued that they themselves would prefer the balance to come about naturally, without having to resort to mandatory quotas. But as Debono pointed out, "Rome wasn't built in a day", and until such a paradigm shift came about of its own accord, quotas are to be considered only as a temporary measure until the local culture evolved to a point where no such methods were needed.

But it was Galea who precipitated the discussion by describing the proposal as 'a necessary evil'... a view vehemently rejected by Labour's Helena Dalli, who insisted that quotas should not come about as an alternative to meritocracy.

In a country where more females were already graduating from University than males, Dalli argued that it was plainly incorrect to assume that women applicants would automatically be less qualified (or even less numerous) than males. The bottom line is that quotas would not be used to by-pass the necessary qualifications, but to ensure that an existing imbalance was addressed.

Deborah Schembri (also PL) echoed this view by pointing out that the idea of mandatory 40% representation was not even limited only to gender imbalance alone, but could apply to all scenarios were a single category of person was under-represented.

One example she cited was that of child minders, of whom the overwhelming majority are female. At a time when all parties agreed on the need to increase childcare facilities to assist working parents and encourage more women into the Labour market, this perception needed to be challenged too... and in this case it would be men to benefit.

Elsewhere AD's Angele Deguara observed that part of the problem stemmed from a cultural predisposition to associate managerial positions with men (an issue highlighted separately by Labour MP Marlene Pullicino, who raised a smile with her anecdote about how people would come to her dentistry clinic - at a time when she shared both profession and clinic with her ex- husband Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando - and ask 'Where's the dentist?"... on the assumption that she must have been the assistant.

Both Pullicino and Deguara noted with satisfaction that this culture was slowly on the wane, as part of a wider cultural change which also reflects on Maltese attitudes towards other social issues - divorce, gay rights, etc.

In the end, NCW former president Grace Attard chipped in to correct any possible misapprehensions regarding the NCW' s position on the quota proposal: "People who disagree with quotas clearly haven't understood the concept at all," she said, adding that the proposed directive didn't even mention the word 'gender'.

On most other issues, however, there was considerable common ground between the three parties. Labour candidates all agreed to retain (and, where necessary, improve) various female-friendly policies introduced by the Nationalist administration - for instance, the 'Club 3-16' initiative, which specifically addresses overlaps in schedules between working parents and their children's school and extra-curricular activities.

Likewise, all three parties rejected a proposal to extend school hours across the board... not necessarily because they saw no problem associated with these hours (most schooldays end at 2.30pm, creating mammoth headaches for working parents); but because the same problem was already being addressed through other means... largely on the initiative of the schools themselves.

On her part PN president Marthese Portelli outlined a whole series of such initiatives, encouraged by nods of support by other candidates of both other parties. Her colleague Shirley Farrugia, a family doctor, likewise gave credit to Maltese society for adapting to a fast-changing environment: today's men, she said, no longer left women to their own devices when it came to rearing children. Society itself is coming round to recognizing the dual responsibility of parenthood without any input from politics.

Theresa Comodini Cachia took this concept one step further - venting exasperation at the way people in general tended to talk exclusively in terms of 'mother and child'... when the reality on the ground is more a case of 'parent and child'.

But there were natural limits to how far this newfound spirit of equality and liberalism could be stretched. Marthese Portelli admitted that she herself was more comfortable with the 'traditional model' of family, consisting of a man, a woman and children.

However, she argued that all such decisions had to be taken in the child's best interest. "There are studies which say a child suffers no negative impact from being raised by same-sex parents. But there are studies which say the opposite. I can't comment either way, but it is clear that any decision has to be taken on the basis of the child's best interest."

I do not agree with H. Dalli. In my opinion she doesn't know what she is talking about.
Cons and pros in adoption of children might happen in both str8 and gay parents. That is why adoptions are left to experts' decisions.