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The way to achieve gender equality in the boardroom

The gender quota discussion is one that has engendered heated debate for several years now. I personally have mixed feelings regarding the subject but based on my experience as a woman in business for over 15 years I have regretfully come to the conclusion that to achieve real change in this generation we need to institute a system of quotas.

I set up my first business 15 years ago and there is no doubt that along the way I encountered a number of challenges that my male counterparts never had to contend with. However, by hook or by crook I still managed to make it through and as such I never found my gender to be a major impediment. That said, there is no doubt that my experience is not a typical one in that most women do not set up a business but work hard to climb the corporate ladder in more traditional ways. In their case, there is no doubt that the situation is not quite as straightforward.

The reality is that many women have the ability, but are not given the opportunity

The truth is that as I get older, I cannot help but notice that change is very slow on this lovely island of ours. Perceptions might have changed a little over the years but the realities that women – and particularly new mothers – are facing nowadays are very similar to those I experienced when I had my first child almost 11 years ago. Our society sees no problem in burdening women with a disproportionate responsibility in child rearing – then screaming blue murder at initiatives to help those very same women who sacrificed their career (most often when their partner continued working).

One would also think that by now the powers-that-be would have realised just how anachronistic and unfair the current maternity benefit system is, placing all the burden as it does on employers, and that they would have rectified the situation to equalise the cost of employing men and women from the point of view of companies who are looking into taking on new staff. That would truly level the playing field once and for all, because the truth is that if there is a job interview and two equally capable candidates apply, one male and the other female, the man is likely to get the job because he costs less and is less of a risk to the employer. If we cannot even admit as much, then we can never have an honest discussion about the obstacles encountered by women who want to further their career in Malta. This is why the idea of quotas has grown on me and I regretfully have had to admit that they are the only way that we can kick-start true progress towards achieving equality of the sexes in the professional domain. Unpleasant though it is to admit it, we need quotas to force a change in mindset.

The typical response whenever someone mentions quotas is that this is discrimination against men and that women should earn their career progression. However, when I look at the composition of most boards, I have to ask myself whether the situation is truly a reflection of the capabilities of women. Am I to understand that women are so mediocre professionally that it is impossible to find one or two women of equal calibre on a board of say, 10 directors? Are we saying that we do not even have two good women for every eight good men? Whenever people wax lyrical about women needing to earn their place on a board, what I find most insulting is the insinuation that women are so mediocre professionally that they are under-represented on governmental and company boards only because they are not quite up to scratch.

Let’s get real. It is going to take quotas to force the people choosing board members to go outside their comfort zone and appoint women who deserve the spot. The reality is that many women have the ability but are not given the opportunity.

The way I see it in Malta, we do not need positive discrimination. We simply need to eliminate discrimination. That is what quotas are all about.

Claudine Cassar is the managing director of the Alert Group.

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