Minding the gender gap | Renee Laiviera

Despite an apparent 15-place drop in Malta’s gender gap rating, Equality Commissioner Renee Laiviera sees an overall improvement in female participation in public life. But more needs to be done

Commissioner for promotion of gender equality Renee Laiviera (Photo: Ray Attard)
Commissioner for promotion of gender equality Renee Laiviera (Photo: Ray Attard)
Renee Laiviera • Equality Commissioner interviewed

It’s been a week of mixed, possibly even conflicting fortunes for Malta on the international stage. On one level, credit ratings agency Moody’s reaffirmed Malta’s A3 status, and projected a positive economic outlook for the coming year. Separately, our education system was ranked as ‘among the best in the world’ by the World Economic Forum.

But dropping like a clanger in the midst of all this good news was this year’s Global Gender Gap report, in which Malta slipped 15 rungs in the world rankings to place 99th on the global index: far below the European average, and nestling somewhere between Brunei Durasallam and Belize.

This index measures the relative gaps between women and men in health, education, the economy and politics in 142 countries around the world. Surely, a sudden dip like the one it registers for Malta should set alarm bells ringing on a national level.

Or should it? One person who is definitely interested in the report’s findings is Ms Renee Laiviera, former chair of the Confederation of Malta Women’s Associations, and current commissioner for the promotion of gender equality. I meet her at the NCPE’s offices in Blata l-Bajda, and find her poring over reams of papers at her desks: including past Gender Gap Index reports, as well as National Statistics Office documents showing a dizzying array of graphs and pie-charts.

Asked for her own interpretation of the apparent slide in gender gap ratings, Laiviera urges caution in the interpretation of such statistics.

“There are two issues we need to look at. One, the overall rating – and even the individual ratings of each country – caused us to start asking questions. What is happening here? Because on the national level, the statistics are giving us a completely different picture. Then we looked at how these ratings were worked out. Let’s take, for example, education. If you look at a country where the enrolment of students in primary schools is at 50% of all children… whilst in Malta, at the moment, we have 100% enrolment in primary schools – if the number of girls was higher than boys, both countries would get a rating of ‘1’. Because it is the gap that is being looked at here. So if the number of girls is higher, irrespective of the total statistics for enrolment in that country, the gap would be the same…”

This admittedly shifts the landscape slightly. If Malta’s current primary school enrolment is 100%, and the intake of girls is higher than of boys... all that really means is that there are more primary school-aged girls than boys in Malta at the moment…

“Exactly. And in a country where only 50% of children attend primary school, if more girls enrol than boys, the gap would be the same. This is one of the factors contributing to this result. Another is that there are eight new countries that have been added since the last time the study was conducted. That’s the first thing you see, in fact. Immediately this is going to make a difference. Five of these new ratings have pushed Malta down the ranks because they have a higher rating than we have…”

So this index does not represent an actual reflection of the reality at ground level at all?

“We can’t really say that. On the basis of this interpretation of the gender gap, these are the results that emerge. I’m not questioning that. But then you have to read more, and dig into the details…”

Let us, for argument’s sake, ignore this report for the time being. The NCPE has after all been looking into the issue of gender equality in Malta for years. How would Dr Laiviera herself rate the actual gap, on the basis of the information the commission already has at its disposal? Are things getting better, or worse?

“I think that overall… let’s take the different categories into consideration. This index looks at specific areas: political participation, education, health, and the labour market. In the case of political empowerment, we have seen an increase in the number of women in parliament. That is a fact. We have also seen the percentage of women MEPs rising to 67%. That is a considerable increase. If you look at the labour market, we are seeing a steady increase here too, not only of women, but also of men…”

Paradoxically, this apparent improvement at all these levels is in itself a cause for concern for the Commission: which, as Laiviera reminds me, concerns ‘equality’, not ‘superiority’, between the sexes.

“In education, for instance, we have 61% of graduates at tertiary level who are women. This is worrying for us because of the boys. The rate of male graduates is very low. That is something we have to look at. Even though, in the ratings, we get a ‘1’ here: because, again, the way the index is drawn up looks at female participation, so we would get a higher rating. But here at the Commission we look at gender: both male and female…”

The picture Laiviera now paints seems considerably different from the perception that arises from the report.

“Our statistics show that the participation of women in the workforce is also rising. According to the National Statistics Office… hold on, I have the figures here somewhere…” She rifles through her papers “… it has gone up to 51%, as of June 2014. In December 2012 it was 49%. In December 2013 it went up to 50.1%, and now…”

Doesn’t this also mean that the report is completely misleading?

“It depends on the way you look at it. You have to understand how it’s worked out. If you look at Ireland, for instance: it places very high in the rankings; but in Ireland we know there is very high unemployment. Yet they place higher than us, because the index looks only at the difference between male and female participation: not the participation in the labour market as a whole.”

At the same time, this may also suggest that Malta has a lot of catching up to do. Without disputing Dr Laiviera’s claims of progress in so many spheres: if a country with very high unemployment can still overtake us on the basis of the gender gap in employment, this also illustrates that our own gender gap, though narrowing, was very high to begin with…

“Maybe. But maybe as well – and this is also showing up in statistics at EU level – men are finding it much harder to get jobs than women.”

So more than a question of women climbing the employment ladder, it’s actually a case of men climbing down?

“You have to take each particular country and place the statistics in the context of what is happening there. What the economic crisis has done to that country, for example. As you know in Malta we were spared the worst effects of the crisis. This is why we are managing to push the agenda forward…”

Elsewhere, she suggests that statistics may be skewed for purely demographic reasons.

“On life expectancy, we have moved down the rankings a little with regard to women. But again, if you look at the fact that the number of women who are much older than men is higher… then obviously, the number of deaths will also be higher for women than for men.”

Nonetheless, she acknowledges that there are causes for concern which emerge from the same report.

“Obviously we’re not saying that we don’t have problems with obesity, or diabetes, and such like. Of course we have, and we need to look into that. Not just to improve life expectancy for the elderly, either, but for each one of us. We don’t have very healthy lifestyles, and this is showing up in the statistics. And it is costing us a lot, not only in terms of our own health but in the cost for the state to provide healthcare…”

The gender gap report also confirms the existence of a core problem that is very well known to the NCPE.

“We know that the rate of participation of women in the labour market up until the age of 30-31 is as high as the EU average. It is after the age of 31, when many women will be having children – a second child, perhaps – that they start dropping out. It is clear where the issues are, and where our efforts have to focus.”

The good news, she adds, is that today’s labour market is beginning to understand that there are significant benefits to be reaped, even in terms of productivity, from narrowing the gender gap.

“Studies have shown that where there is diversity at the workplace, a balance between male and female employees, the output will be higher. There will be diversity of experience, diversity of skills… even diversity of qualifications, sometimes…”

But this brings her to another cause for concern, this time affecting the education sector. 

“We have an issue concerning segregation, to a certain extent, in some University courses. In Engineering and IT, for instance, we would like to see more women graduates. We can see a similar segregation in the labour market, too: women tend to be more present in certain areas than others. One of the areas that crops up in the Gender Gap Index is wage inequality. Our question is: is this because of labour segregation? Are women taking lower paid jobs?”

At the same time, there are supposed to already be safeguards in place on this score. The principle of ‘equal pay for equal work’ is itself enshrined in national legislation. I am not naïve enough to think that something does not happen just because it is illegal: but short of better enforcement, how can one actually address the issue of unequal pay, when the legislation is already in place?

“It is not just a question of equal pay. The jobs themselves attract lower salaries. It is quite well known that as soon as a sector attracts more women than men, the value of that work lessens. The work itself is devalued. Look at teachers, for instance. I was following what happened with teachers in the UK, years ago, and you could see that their bargaining power grew less and less [as more women took on employment in education]. It happened here as well. The ‘feminisation’ of the sector resulted in a drop in wages.”

When it comes to addressing such issues, Laiviera argues that efforts have to also be made at the level of employment itself. It is not enough for governments to offer incentives. Companies should also take a pro-active approach.

Speaking of incentives: what is being done at present… and what more could be done, in the NCPE’s view?

“Initiatives such as free childcare services and the Breakfast Club have helped a lot. Tax incentives are another avenue. We already have incentives for parents who choose not to send their children to state-provided childcare services. There are tax incentives also for those who re-enter the labour market after having had a child, and after having been out of employment for five years.”

In some cases, however, progress is impeded by an apparent reluctance to introduce new business models and concepts.

“One issue we need to look at is flexibility at the workplace. The Commission awards a quality mark to those companies and enterprises – even government departments – which offer family friendly measures and support, and which have equality and sexual harassment policies that go over and above what the law demands. After all, obeying the law is the minimum. We reward those companies which go above the minimum. One of the things we want to see is more flexibility offered to employees in order to achieve a better work/life balance.”

Teleworking, she adds, is a case in point. “If and where possible, we would like to see more teleworking opportunities in place. Malta now has a very good technological infrastructure. So let’s make good use of it…

Infrastructure alone is not enough, however. “One of the issues that prevents teleworking from being implemented is that managers are not very familiar with how to manage the system. So now we are offering a training programme for telemanagers, to help in the implementation of systems for the benefit of both company and workers. It is a give-and-take situation: both sides should benefit from this option.”

Nonetheless, there is one aspect which statistical exercises such as the Gender Gap Report do not necessarily reflect at all… and that is national and cultural attitudes. At the risk of buying into a well-worn national stereotype, there seems to be a level of machismo in Maltese society that brings to bear on the issue of social equality.

How much do cultural perceptions of women actually impact the situation? For instance, the traditional view of housework as the sole preserve of the woman… as implicit in the Maltese expression ‘mara tad-dar’?

“This is what our society is still saying, yes. There is still a tendency to saddle women with all the responsibility for childcare, or for care of the elderly… in a word, for dependence in the family.

And you still hear women talking about how ‘good’ their husbands or partners are because they ‘help out’. It is not a question of ‘helping out’; it is a question of sharing responsibilities.

The household belongs to both. I’m not just talking about women and men, but even same sex couples. Household responsibilities should fall on the shoulders of both partners. So yes, we do have that kind of culture…”

As with tax incentives, there are policies and strategies that can be used to address this apparent cultural imbalance.

“One of the issues that needs to be looked into is, should maternity leave – or rather, parental leave – have a certain number of weeks reserved only for men, on a ‘use it or lose it’ basis?

This is what’s happening in Scandinavian countries, for instance… in counties where there is a push to have more men involved in the upbringing of the children.”

Often referred to as a ‘daddy quota’, the model has radically boosted the number of fathers taking parental leave in countries like Norway: where the percentage has shot up from 4% to over 90% since its introduction.

Laiviera argues that the need for a similar quantum leap forward in Malta goes well beyond concerns with economic performance or labour force issues.

“It is also for the men themselves, as fathers, to develop a bond with the children… and also for the children, in order for them to build a strong relationship with their father, as they do with their mother.

“I remember colleagues of mine – men – who used to say that, because they had to work a lot of overtime and long hours… and again, the long hour syndrome works against not just women, but also men and families in general… they don’t remember the children growing up.

“And when they retire, they will find that they lost out a lot on their relationships with their children. So this is not just about women, or just about equality.

“This is about relationships. This is about the family… about society as a whole. We want to have a healthy society; and studies have shown that the more diverse the workplace, the more a country achieves equality, the healthier its society becomes.”