On quotas and tuna
Introducing gender quotas in elections is not going to make women suddenly wake up in the morning and go: “Gosh, you know what, now I fancy becoming a Member of Parliament.”
Before we all start talking about the introduction of quotas in a huff, and get all worked up on whether this will make women feel like tuna or not, there are more important things to discuss.
The truth is that in Malta, as in other western countries, sexism is no longer the main obstacle to women’s careers. Children are. Or family members. Most women take career breaks to look after children; many care for elderly relatives too. I and many of my girlfriends switched from full-time work to reduced or flexible time to balance work and family.
So the question we need to ask is: who on earth can be enticed by a job that entails heading to Valletta at exactly the same moment when your family is returning back home from work or a myriad of extracurricular activities?
Let’s take stock: parliamentary sessions start at 6pm and end, if lucky, at 9pm. It is common for votes to be taken at 9.30pm, which means that some days MPs won’t get home before 10.30pm. By that time, the rest of the family will be asleep or too zonked out for anyone to actually want to have a chat about their day.
It is no surprise, therefore, that men and women who are raising families are totally put off. Consequently, I’d say, offhand, that the average age of Maltese parliamentarians is, more or less, 55.
Of course, it’s good to have wise elders around, but we need a Parliament which is representative of the country both age-wise and gender-wise. This is why we need to do our utmost to encourage more women politicians – and more family-oriented men – because we need people with whom we can identify.
They would, hopefully, not have been practising their mass meeting speech in front of the mirror at age six, and want to jostle everyone out of the way so they get a photo with the leader; their main aim would not be to tell their constituents whatever they want to hear just to keep their seat, but they would actually work hard to improve Maltese society.
What I am suggesting, therefore, is not for MPs to reduce the workload but to work smarter hours that would allow them to clock the bulk of the hours in the same hours as other professions and more importantly, when children are at school.
Ideally the Parliament building would also house a child service centre – for those occasional afternoon sessions, such as Budget week – when MPs have marathon sessions. At least young MPs who are also parents and who would have nowhere to leave their children, would know that their children’s homework was being done while they are busy debating.
If we want to attract the best talent we must not go straight to quotas but we must think hard about how to make Parliament more family-friendly. As things are, brilliant people with great potential are cautious about submitting their candidature because they are fully aware that the awkward hours will be a major drawback and will stress their families.
It is only after we fix this, then, can we consider the setting up of quotas. And yes, we can no longer pussyfoot about it. There is a growing impatience with the snail pace of voluntary change: it is just not happening. Women are the majority of all our graduates but make up a smaller share of the workforce; they are even scarcer still the further up the corporate ladder they go; and are practically a rarity on the parliamentary benches. Some do make it, of course – and a big prosit to them – but nine out of 71 just doesn’t cut it.
As Viviane Reding, the then European Union’s justice commissioner, once said: “I DON’T like quotas, but I like what quotas do.”
Let’s look at Italy by way of example. Our neighbour’s profile has a very conservative gender culture, and ranks poorly in Europe in almost all gender statistics. They waited and waited for women to be placed on company boards by means of slow evolution. Did it happen? Not really – only six per cent of women were on boards.
Then Italy introduced quotas, and of course, 30 per cent of women found themselves on boards. Studies subsequently showed that these gender quotas not only contributed to women’s empowerment, but they increased the competition and stimulated better results for companies.
Maltese gender culture is still not as progressive as we’d like to think. Part of my day job is to edit manuscripts that people send in for publication consideration. It is shocking how many stories – written in 2017 – still depict the woman as someone whose sole purpose is to clean the house and cook for the children.
I believe we need a drastic shake-up of the system to change our way of thinking and that can only come by turning the Parliament into an exemplary work environment and introducing quotas – or separate lists – for a limited number of years.
If we value the family connections of our Members of Parliament, then we would be attracting people who would automatically put families first on their agendas. Let’s not wait another decade for this shake-up.