The Malta Independent 17 August 2019, Saturday

Achieving parity

Sunday, 14 April 2019, 09:08 Last update: about 5 months ago

Rebecca Buttigieg, Lead Participant

Over the last 70 years, hardly any progress has been made in women's numerical representation in politics. Indeed, Malta champions itself as a beacon of equality yet, nearly a century after granting its women citizens the right to vote, it clocks in behind 154 other countries with regard to women's participation as our representatives in Parliament.

Regretfully, political equality is a goal we have not yet achieved. We must admit that, for us not to have made significant progress, there must be something intrinsically wrong with our system and our mindset. In decades nothing has happened: the tree has to be shaken.


Until recently, efforts to improve female representation in politics have often focused on implementing quotas. But quotas can be controversial - with some claiming that they are undemocratic whilst others believe that they undermine women as instead of being perceived as qualified for a position, they are forced to justify it.

What is really needed is a nuanced approach that tackles the underlying, interconnected barriers that women face in being nominated for elected office and conducting a successful campaign. And I believe that the proposed legal reform announced by the government is the proper way to make an effective difference.

On reading the consultation document, one immediately realises that the proposals have been crafted carefully in order not to change the current electoral system and impinge on the opportunities it affords. Essentially, the proposal seeks to leave things exactly as they are but then add seats to those already elected by using the so-called 'gender corrective mechanism'. This means that no one can complain that he or she was precluded from a seat in Parliament that she or he  would have attained, had the current system been applied.

The gender corrective mechanism is also there to help men, should they ever become the under-represented sex in parliament. The proposal is seeking to achieve gender equality not to advance the interests of women by forsaking the rights of men.

The document also deals with the lack of female candidates on the ballot sheet and proposes that political parties should be subsidised by funds, depending on the number of female candidates presented by the party in the previous election. Even though I agree that one of the most powerful ways of doing this is by using money as an incentive, I believe that overcoming such structural barriers requires a comprehensive strategy for supporting women candidates. Political parties that serve as gatekeepers for aspirants to public office, also have significant power when it comes to finding creative ways to support women candidates.

Take the LEAD programme spearheaded by the Labour Party. It involved no financial incentive yet it was a resounding success because it offered women the opportunity to be trained and taught the do's and don'ts of running a political campaign. Furthermore, the argument for more recruitment of women candidates is not about compensating for women's lack of confidence of ambition in politics, but about giving them the same levels of encouragement as men.

Their election also has critical symbolic implications for the 'role model effect'. When women are visible as representatives, women and girls view women more favourably and political participation more tangible. Considering the handful of female political role models in our country, we owe it to the next generation to give them women who they can look up to and be inspired by.

Concrete policies should also be put in place to support working parents by giving them more flexibility to meet family responsibilities. It is an undeniable fact that women face high social and cultural barriers to political participation. In particular, greater care obligations - reinforced by public perceptions of a 'woman's role' - severely undermine a woman's ability to run for public office. These issues are difficult to address directly but one step that could help would be for male politicians to assume more care responsibilities, thereby making the playing field more level, whilst also demonstrating that family is a high priority for everyone.

This mechanism is only temporary. The proposed amendments have an unconditional sunset clause stating that the proposed mechanism would be subject to Parliament's evaluation in 20 years time.  Therefore, in twenty years, Parliament would be able to examine the success or futility of the mechanism and establish whether or not it is still required. This Government has taken the bold step to introduce positive measures that should give us more equal representation in Parliament and yet has made sure not to bind future generations with its decision. This is of vital importance, as no one can tell how society will change in twenty years' time.

Similar measures taken in other countries have proved to be ineffective and  have instead created more distortions than benefits. It is true of society that what is necessary now might not be remotely important later. My optimistic side hopes that - somewhere down the line - we will not need to resort to a gender-corrective mechanism to elect more female representatives to Parliament.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to gender inequality in politics but there is plenty that can be done to ensure that women's voices are heard. This proposal is a step in the right direction. 

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