‘Women are held to higher standards than men’

Women’s representation in various leadership positions in Malta is negligible – even though women make up 51% of the population. Amy Camilleri Zahra tells Jurgen Balzan about this democratic deficit

Amy Camilleri Zahra
Amy Camilleri Zahra

According to the United Nations, a threshold of at least 30% of female legislators is required to ensure that public policy reflects the needs of women. 

In Malta, just nine of Malta’s 71 MPs are women (13%) placing the country in the 142nd place worldwide in terms of women representation in parliament, behind countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Guatemala. 

On the other hand the head of state is a woman and four out of the country’s six MEPs are women. 

Amy Camilleri Zahra says that although recent research shows that the majority believe that men and women are and can be equally good leaders, “it is also widely believed, and I agree with this too, that men have a better shot at leadership positions both in business and politics.”

Camilleri Zahra, who lectures in psychology and disability studies at the University of Malta adds this is down to a number of reasons, including “factors such as, boys tend to be encouraged more than girls to seek a career in politics and young girls and women tend to hold very high standards for themselves and thus perceive themselves not to be good enough for politics.” 

Camilleri Zahra is a member of the Forum for Active Community Engagement (FACE) which “seeks to engage diverse communities, creating spaces within naturally occurring places, to give people in Malta and Gozo a stronger voice and empowerment to enhance wellbeing.” 

FACE collaborates with the Core Team of the President’s Foundation on a number of projects. The upcoming project is an event being organised to celebrate International Women’s Day with the aim of discussing Women in Politics and Leadership. The event is going to be held tomorrow at 4pm at San Anton Palace.

Women and men make equally good political and business leaders but men seem to have an edge on women in taking the top positions. Camilleri Zahra believes that this could be down to the fact that women tend to be held to higher standards than men and a number of decision-makers hold the perception that family responsibilities don’t leave time for running a major corporation or for running for politics.

She says a research study conducted among female Maltese MEPs, MPs, local councillors and NGO leaders by herself and FACE co-chair Marceline Naudi shows that “most of the women who ‘made it’ claimed they felt that they had to prove themselves over and over again, which is surely not something that men tend to worry about.”

Asked whether the democratic deficit is down to cultural or structural problems, Camilleri Zahra says it is a mixture of both. 

“We still need a cultural shift in terms of gender equality whereby work life balance becomes an issue for both sexes. Serious change will occur when family friendly measures are taken up by both men and women and not perceived as something which only women benefit from.” However she also highlights a number of structural problems, such as having a part-time Parliament. 

“The fact that sittings are held after ‘office hours’ surely doesn’t help and doesn’t allow for both sexes to achieve a work life balance. Another issue is the perception that politics is some old boys club. However, change can only be brought about by the involvement of more women. I believe young girls and women need role models. They need to be made aware of the effect that politics has on our daily lives and that they can bring about change through politics.”

Pink quotas divide public opinion but Camilleri Zahra says it depends on the context, arguing that “they can work in politics more than in business or for employment reasons.” 

“I think quotas have a stronger chance of reaping benefits in politics than in any other sector and that is because if you have a ballot sheet made up of 50/50 in terms of candidates then it is still up to the people to vote.”

On the other hand, Camilleri Zahra says she does not believe in tokenism because it degrades women or whoever the quotas are aimed for. 

“I believe that having quotas without other means of support is rather futile and we would only be scratching the surface. In order for quotas to work, other measures and forms of support need to be present.”