It all boils down to stereotypes… | Nikita Zammit Alamango

Nikita Zammit Alamango, chairperson of the Labour Party’s ‘Nisa Laburisti’, on why ‘equality’ is about more than just gender quotas, female representation in Parliament, or even just about women and men

Nikita Zammit Alamango. Photo: James Bianchi
Nikita Zammit Alamango. Photo: James Bianchi

The Labour Party prides itself on being historically at the forefront of women's issues, and has now pledged to carry on this tradition by boosting female representation, in Parliament and elsewhere. Is PL’s boast justified, in your view? And how much of this drive is indeed a reflection of avant-gardism on Labour's part… and how much of it simply because the country has always been so very backwards when it comes to women’s rights?

I find it quite sad, in a way, because – despite all the changes that were brought about back then: the right to vote in 1945, the first female elected MP, two female Presidents, Agatha Barbara addressing mass meetings on the same podium as Mintoff, etc. – we’re still not all that far away, all these years later. But yes, I think it is true that Labour has always been at the forefront of women’s issues: even if the issues themselves haven’t progressed as much as we’d like.

Why? The simplest reason is that women make up 50% of the population. We’re half the social fabric… yet we’re not represented enough, in any public forum: whether it’s politics, business, industry... even education. Ironically, we see more women than men graduating from the university, but then, they get lost in the workplace. There have been improvements: free childcare has helped a lot, as did other tiny things that make a practical difference – co-education, for instance. I went to a co-ed school, 15 years ago. Now we’re seeing this happen in government schools as well. When I look back, I remember guys just as much as girls at my school… obviously that gives you confidence to deal with guys and girls in exactly the same way. It doesn’t make any difference at all, to me. But to the guys who went to an all-boys school, for instance, it might make a difference…

On behalf of an earlier, pre-coed generation, I can confirm that, yes, that’s probably true. But while it might explain the historical imbalance, it doesn’t address the situation today. Why are things changing so slowly?

I think we will see the fruit of co-education in years to come. In some respects, we’re already seeing it. My own experience in politics, for example: when I started out in 2007, I was the only girl, in a group of only guys, for about six years. Also, on my first board appointment, in 2013, all the other board members were men. I was the only woman. Things have changed since then; but still, we’re lagging far behind. Something needs to be done. What and how is debatable, but something definitely needs to be done. It is evident that we are stuck here; and nothing seems to be moving… especially in female political representation. But in so many other areas too. Ideally, I’d like to live in an age – and rightly so, I would think – when we don’t celebrate ‘Women’s Day’, when we don’t even have ‘Nisa Laburisti’… where we don’t talk about these things, because we don’t need to anymore. The reality, however, is different. In reality, women haven’t been assimilated in all the structures; whether it’s in politics, profession, or even activism. At least, not at national level. There has been progress – not enough, perhaps – at party-level…

There is however, a difference between a party and national level…

Parties can regulate their own internal structures however they like. But – to put it bluntly – if the electorate (however wrongly) keeps electing men, should the answer be to ‘distort’ the result to increase women representatives anyway?
To be fair, I was elected to the Labour executive with a quota, in 2008. It was the last time the quota was used. I feel it’s something I have to specify, before answering the question. First of all, we’re not trying to create something new [by proposing gender quotas for Parliament]. There are loads of other countries with a similar system in place: in Scandinavia, for instance. But this is also about assuring people that… nothing will go wrong. It’s not scary. It’s actually better. A lot better. We see this in boards and committees where there is already equal representation. It is a statistical fact that they perform better….

Out of curiosity – not a question I planned to ask – but how do you account for that yourself?
There are probably lots of different reasons: whether it’s genes, or characteristics... women are generally more cautious; though sometimes, you need to take fast decisions. So the balance works out better. At the end of the day, it’s about having the right mixture… because quotas are not the only mechanism. There is a multitude of other things that also need to be done. The parties themselves need to support, train, and educate, across the board. They need to set internal targets for themselves, to encourage and motivate more women to enter politics. To put it another way: nobody ever taught me to ‘be a politician’. I did study political science, mind you. In fact, I might be one of the only ones who did… but [laughing] no one actually appreciates that in Malta. In reality, however, politics is not what you study at University. So yes, parties have to offer support. To be fair, they don’t support men, either. It’s not necessarily a gender thing… parties, generally, don’t have much in the way of support structures for any candidates.

Do you feel that new, untested candidates, male or female, are thrown in at the deep end?
Well, not entirely. In Labour, there have been attempts: like IDEAT, the think-tank established to encourage youth involvement… and now, very obviously, Miriam Dalli’s initiative, LEAD, which specifically targets women. Hopefully, this will have a tangible impact on people actually contesting elections… because that is where the need is most felt. There are, of course, certain things you can’t really train for, on political door-to-door visits especially. For instance, what to do when a dog barks ferociously at you on a visit. It happened to me… and I’m petrified of dogs. How can you train for that at University? But these, and much more, are the sort of things you have to be prepared to deal, when venturing into politics…

We are now talking about a more generic imbalance, not limited to women. There are other known reasons for prejudice: age, for instance… are these also part of your broader target?
Age is a good example, because – while it affects everyone – it is much harder on women. And it is very under-reported. Getting back into the workforce, later in life, is hard enough anyway; let alone when you’re a midway career woman who has just had a late baby, wants to take five years off and come back in… it’s very, very difficult. Even if, in HR ethics, you can’t really ask a woman whether she intends to have children…

It’s actually illegal…
[Shrugs] Even so, the reality is that, if you’re an employer, and you have a woman in front of you… from a business perspective, you’re looking at two years’ maternity leave, career leave, and so on. Whether you ask or not is almost immaterial. But the real issue, in this particular case, is that we’re still talking only about maternity leave, not parental leave. Men have just as much responsibility for taking care of the kids as women. So, in reality, though we fought so hard just to get into the workforce… we’re doing double the work. The chores at home, and all that, are still predominantly viewed as the women’s role… though this is a cultural thing, and not true of everyone...

The ‘woman’s place is at home’ attitude was undeniably a major cultural trait in Malta until very recently… but how true is it of today?
It’s changing, for sure. But it still all boils down to stereotypes. If stereotypes are broken, and social interaction changes, it would help. Education, media, family: they all have a part to play. Part of the resistance to parental leave is that men – for cultural reasons – may feel ‘too shy to take it’. This has to change. I think maternity leave should be replaced by a shared parental leave: extended to either parent, and people choose how to take it. That would help bring about a change…

I have often observed that when change comes, it tends to come very suddenly. We saw this in the 2011 divorce referendum – in which you were part of the Yes campaign – and also in the profound cultural change towards LGBTQ issues, among others. Do you see something similar happening with women’s rights today?
While it is true that popular attitudes to divorce, and gay rights, have changed drastically… there are other areas where change hasn’t happened at all. Unfortunately it’s still there with racism. And with women, too. The situation with women is not as bad as with race, but it is changing too slowly. We still need more role models to look up to. People need to see that, ‘it will be fine… nothing will happen’. It’s a bit like divorce, in this respect. Before the referendum, the arguments against were: ‘Oh, but everyone will go and get divorced, society will crumble, and all that’. Now, divorce is here, and that didn’t happen.

Speaking of role models, President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca recently gave an interview, and said she felt some of the ‘unfair criticism’ was precisely because she was a woman. Do you share that sentiment (not just about President, but generally)?
I think we’re held to a different level, yes. If a man is large in size, he can get away with it… if a woman is large in size, you’re looked down upon. And if you’re skinny or good-looking, then it becomes, ’your skirt is too short’, or ‘your top too revealing’. In the President’s case, it was because she wore green…

I never understood, that, by the way. Is there a colour Presidents are supposed to wear?
I have no idea. [Laughs] But there could be legitimate reasons to question these things. Constructive criticism is a good thing. ‘This looks better on you’, or ‘you’d look better in a skirt or trousers’, or whatever. That’s fine. But again, we don’t do that with men. And yes, it may be something that keeps women away from politics. In politics, you’re in the public eye. It’s not easy. For instance – and again, this happened to me – you’re on a house visit, and you get a sudden call saying you have a TV interview in an hour. It’s not just about putting gel in my hair. I have to go home and change, put make-up on. They might sound like silly barriers, but they’re there… and they will always remain there.

But – at the risk of an awkward question to close with – this ties in with something you said earlier. You said that you want to live in age where we don’t celebrate Woman’s Day. Yet now you are talking about barriers that apply to women, but not (as much, anyway) to men. It is a contradiction feminism is often called out on: it seems you want to be treated the same, yet also differently…
I’m proud to be a feminist; but feminism doesn’t mean that at all. Nor does it mean that ‘women take over’. It means equity: not equality, but equity. You know that image, of three people trying to look over a fence? With different-sized boxes, so they can all see over equally? To me, feminism is about that. The boxes are not level, because women are still held to different levels. It’s not just politics, or even work. If a woman is assertive, she’s ‘bossy’.  The stereotypes are always there; and the connotations are always very different between a man and woman. So there isn’t either equality or equity. That’s where we still are today.


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