The Malta Independent 19 December 2018, Wednesday

TMID Editorial: International Women’s Day - To quota or not to quota?

Thursday, 8 March 2018, 09:26 Last update: about 11 months ago

Ahead of today’s commemoration of International Women’s Day, the European Commission yesterday released a set of figures showing that while the gender pay gap in Malta, gauged at 11 per cent as at the end of 2016, remains well below the bloc’s average of 16.2 per cent, the wage differential appears to be growing rather than shrinking.

In fact, according to the statistics released yesterday, the difference in the average gross hourly earnings of between men and women has actually been steadily increasing - to a total of by 3.3 per cent - since 2011 when the discrepancy had stood at just 7.7 per cent.

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There is clearly something wrong with the formula when Malta appears to be surrendering worthy position when it comes to equal pay for equal work across the board.  And perhaps before treading into the minefield of contemplating gender quotas for female participation in politics and business, the country’s policymakers might want to take a look at the trend and take some tangible steps to stem the flow lest matters deteriorate further.

In tandem with this wage gap issue is the matter of whether to establish quotas both in terms of political participation and in terms of women being in top positions in the corporate world.

Back in 2012 the European Commission had drafted ambitious plans to impose sanctions on stock market-listed companies if they do not reserve at least 40 per cent of their non-executive board positions for women by 2020.  That, at the end of the day, had proved too controversial for the EU.

Malta at the time had stood against the initiative and was one of 10 member states that had constituted a blocking minority at member state level. 

Malta and the nine others had argued, some five years back, against a one-size-fits-all approach to addressing the glass ceiling that professional women often find themselves trapped below, and which many times stops their rise up the corporate ladder dead in it tracks.

The government at the time agreed in essence that more women are needed in boardrooms, but it did not agree that the EU should impose the ways and means of how to reach that overarching goal on all member states. The government at that time had actually imposed its own quotas when it comes to the civil service, and today it has amongst the highest level of women in senior positions.

This was to have hopefully served as an example to the private sector - women serving on public boards, through their experience, will then be able to move on to positions on the boards of private companies. 

Over recent years the university demographic has also changed drastically and today some 60 per cent of the university population is female, which means that 60 per cent of graduates in the coming years will be female.

But then again in Malta many of the best women for the job are unfortunately taken out of action far too early in life.  They have children and do not return to work.  And no matter what incentives the government offers, many women would still rather dedicate their energies to raising children. 

This is merely a cultural trait, and one that will take an awful long time to be reversed.  And reversed it must be because this state of affairs, at the end of the day, means that in Malta there tends to be a smaller pool of female talent, and by default an overall smaller pool of national talent, to choose from than other countries where women continue working through their natural working lives.

No doubt, the EU’s rapidly ageing population and its skills shortage – two areas where Malta can be expected to feel the pinch in the decades to come – means that it is now more than ever necessary to capitalise on everyone’s skills, men and women alike, and the EU, and Malta in particular, undoubtedly needs to do more to get more women into the labour market and into higher decision making positions.

Should Malta, for lack of EU action in this regard, take unilateral action and consider imposing such quotas?  Public opinion appears to be somewhat split on this one. 

What will be needed is a rational national debate on the issue if national action is to be taken and quotas in certain areas are to be imposed.  And whether or not such a national discussion yields tangible results, it is certainly a conversation worth having - for women and men alike – because this is, after all, about the national interest on so many levels.

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