Old boys’ clubs and sexist policies stand in the way of gender equality in Malta

Feminised sectors, power of incumbency, and sexist urban design are only some of the hurdles in the way of proper gender equality

Left to right: Chamber of Commerce president Marisa Xuereb, Rachael Scicluna, Prof. JosAnn Cutajar and Emma Portelli Bonnici
Left to right: Chamber of Commerce president Marisa Xuereb, Rachael Scicluna, Prof. JosAnn Cutajar and Emma Portelli Bonnici

Walk into any school staff room in Malta, and you are more likely to see a crowd of women than men at their seats. The data is clear: NSO statistics for 2018-2019 found over over 66% of all teaching personnel in Malta were women.

But is this a problem? Is the feminisation of teaching a problem in itself; or does it reveal something about the gender inequality that pervades Maltese life, the differences that manifest themselves across the various professions and trades practised, or the lack of women at the top – in parliament, in the Cabinet, in the corporate boardrooms of banks and listed companies – in so many spheres of our life?

Malta today is ranking 13th in the EU on the Gender Equality Index. According to the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), the GEI measures how far member states are from achieving a gender-equal society. Since 2010, Malta’s ranking increased by five places, or 10.6 points. Meanwhile, Malta’s score increased by 1.6 points since 2018 to 65– an increase largely driven by improvements in power representation.

Yet it’s in the domain of power representation where gender inequalities are most pronounced, with Malta ranking 19th in this area. Progress has also stalled in political decision-making, where Malta ranks 25th. Women in Cabinet remains unchanged since 2010 at a very low 15%; while MPs increased from 9% to 13% in 2021... and parliamentary gender quotas are yet to kick in.

Malta is furthest away from gender equality in economic decision-making, with just 29.9 points: women on the boards of the largest publicly-listed companies stands at a mere 10%, up from 2% in 2010.

It’s in the world of work that Malta registered a big improvement, up from 65 points in 2010 to almost 77 in 2019, shooting up 23rd to fifth in just a decades, largely driven by an increase in work participation. But Malta falls back on equality in education: here, 50% of all female university students are enrolling in ‘feminised’ fields like education, health, welfare, humanities and arts.

Prof. JosAnn Cutajar, from the University of Malta, says men in classrooms can serve as role models for the children they teach. “Having men in the classroom allows students to observe men who are non-violent and whose interactions with women are positive,” she said, adding that having a low number of men in any field produces a negative effect on the quality of service provided.

In education, women are no better at teaching the complexities of maths than men are. But having a mix of male and female teachers gives students the chance to learn from people they relate to, at least on gender alone, while conversely having the chance to interact with adults who are different to them.

“The low number of male students in education, health and social sciences is having an effect on the efficacy of the provision of services in this area,” Cutajar said, such as in the field of social work, where data suggests men are less likely to engage with social workers than women. “It could be that having more men in social work would help address this. The more men join a profession like social work, the more we normalise men showing empathy and talking about their mental health or aggression,” Prof. Cutajar said.

Boardroom  blitz

As the gender pay gap index shows, the hidden benefit to having more men in feminised fields is that professional sectors with a large concentration of men tend to offer better pay and higher flexibility. But that in itelf betrays the unfortunate reality that sectors with high numbers of women and migrant workers are more associated with low wages and poor working conditions.

In this regard, Prof. Cutajar said that bringing more men into feminised sectors could balance out the wage gaps in sectors that tend to be highly concentrated.

Elsewhere in decision-making, the power of incumbency threatens women’s ability to climb the corporate ladder. Marisa Xuereb, the Chamber of Commerce president, said it was not uncommon for people to sit on the same company boards for decades, even if it is unhealthy for the organisation. “Older men tend to hang onto company boards far longer than they stay in executive positions. Of course, experience has value at board level, but so does new blood,” she said.

Overall, Xuereb thinks workplaces are becoming more accommodating. The work-from-home set-up has become more available for office workers in particular, making more jobs accessible for mothers with young children who need to be at home after school hours. “I believe the shortage of human resources is pushing companies to become more flexible in their approach. It pays companies to accommodate capable women because talent is hard to come by.”

But the race to boardroom gender equality has a couple of hurdles for women. A McKinsey report found that burnout is escalating much faster among women than men in the the workplace. The same rings true for Malta, especially for women with children of school age, Xuereb said. “Disruptions to the school routine, including online schooling, placed an increased burden on parents who needed to supervise their children during online schooling, while trying to work from home as best they could. In many cases, the supervising parent was the mother.”

The second hurdle: senior management positions are highly demanding. To become a board director one typically requires some senior management experience. But such positions can be highly demanding in terms of working hours, at times requiring overseas travelling.

“So many capable women hold back from taking up senior management roles, especially when their children are still young. This means that they start gaining senior management experience at a later stage and end up competing with younger and typically more aggressive males to take up directorships vacated by retiring males – when they do retire.”

Gender is as much of a hurdle in politics as it is in business. Emma Portelli Bonnici, a lawyer and PN candidate, explained that some people will vote for people because they’re women, but conversely, some people will not vote for a female candidate because of their gender. “Even if gender does not directly or evidently impacting votes, gender can and does in many ways,” she said.

Beyond the votes, gender can be a struggle when occupying political positions. “Becoming a more public person, as a woman from my own experience or as a non-binary person from the lived experiences of friends, comes with a certain level of criticism that men just do not face.

“When one woman in politics does something that is perceived as a ‘scandal’, be that in her personal or public life, many people see this as a reflection on women in general. The same is rarely said in the inverse.”

Time for quotas?

There are plenty of negatives to men dominating politics. Rachael Scicluna, an anthropologist and Labour candidate, said a lack of women and other minorities in positions of power often results in short-sighted policies that consider only the lived experiences and needs of half the population.

“Most employment is based on a positivist economic strategy based on growth rather than wellbeing, collaborations and the common good. For example, this type of masculinist economy tends to support and fund research which leans towards science and technology, leaving behind the social sciences, arts and humanities,” Scicluna said.

“Considering that the social fabric of society comprises of divergent lived experiences, not having at least female role models in decision-making setups has a direct impact of what type of policies are planned, developed and eventually implemented. Having a diverse representation at high-level decision-making roles can result in more empathic, proactive and inclusive national policies.”

Across the board, women’s shouldering of unpaid care responsibilities at home hinders them from progressing forward in their careers. Scicluna singles this out as a structural issue that results from the wider dominant culture that associates women with the home and kitchen, and men as decision-makers or breadwinners.

“The importance of the home should not be ignored,” Scicluna says, seeing the home as the setting for domestic and community life, where important moral values and identities are learned from a very young age. “Unpaid domestic work tends to happen silently behind closed doors, despite the fact that it is an important motor behind the success of a nation. If we had to unpack this silent motor, that is the power of the domestic realm, then we would realise the positive impact it has on our GDP.”

In this regard, she says that the State should consider the impact of the changing family and changing household on the wider global economy. In doing so, it can prevent issues related to homelessness, unemployment, mental health issues, ill-health and poverty.

Not all gloomy

The forecast for gender equality isn’t too gloomy.

All-male company boards are becoming a bad look, while a new gender quota will see more women writing laws in parliament.

But for company boards, Marisa Xuereb is no fan of gender quotas. Even on the new parliamentary quota, the Chamber President is highly critical. “The system that is being adopted prioritises protection of incumbents, over ensuring that the women who make it are capable and encourage people to vote in more women in future.”

Malta does not have a lot of publicly-listed companies, but it has a number of capable women with senior management experience, Xuereb said.

“I don’t mince words on this: those publicly-listed companies that haven’t managed to secure themselves at least a couple of capable women on their board are missing out.”

Portelli Bonnici admitted that she used to be against gender quotas, but between the strong power of incumbency and all the hurdles for women entering politics, quotas suddenly became the only way to shake up the system. “Ultimately, there is no time to wait around for someone to wake up and realise that representation in politics should be organic – it’s 2021, we might as well get started.”

Sceptics are right to be cynical on gender quotas. They offer no solace to many girls who are structurally discouraged from ever pursuing such high-level positions. Quotas also ignore the uncomfortable class issue in politics, whereby many women who ever make the ballot list often hail from high-paying professions.

And one final thing...

One may not think of urban planning as an antidote for gender equality, but Rachael Scicluna knows not to underestimate the importance of the urban environment to help women and other minorities feel included.

“This inclusivity depends on how urban and open spaces are designed and should include, from the very start, these complex realities of what belonging, safety and security mean to women, older people, children, people with disabilities, persons of colour, and so on. These issues should not be an afterthought in design.”

Sexism in urban design should not be a foreign concept for most in Malta. The struggle of bringing a pram on the bus or the fear of going jogging at night are both examples of how urban Malta could be better designed to accommodate women.

The same can be said of gender-segregated bathrooms, which fail to accommodate those who don’t fit the gender binary.  “Designing policy with this perspective in mind opens up a space for all those groups of people who may be side-lined by the dominant hetero-normative and able-bodied ideology.”

Ultimately, gender equality means equal participation in the workforce, at home, and in all other spheres of life. Scicluna insisted that any form of economic growth needs to address this issue. “Such an alternative economic model could address the feminisation of poverty, such as the structural issues of single female-led households which fall within the ‘at-risk-of-poverty’ category,” she said.