“How will your baby affect your chances of being prime minister?”  This question was asked a few days ago to Jacinda Ardern, the new leader of New Zealand’s opposition. Needless to say, this raised controversy and captured news headlines around the world.

To me, this shows that when we discuss gender equality, we need to think beyond quotas and whether a prime minister is male, female, gay or black.

Sure, having politicians come from different social backgrounds can be symbolic of broader changes taking place in society.  But evidence-based policymaking will point out a wide range of factors which contribute to inequality.

Some feminists, for example, argue that even in societies which prize gender equality, women may experience inequalities such as prejudice over women’s capabilities, responsibilities and potential.

In various cases, women employed in the labour market end up facing double (or triple) shifts when they face a heavy burden of housework. And often, family responsibilities have a greater negative impact on women than on men whenit comes to matters such as promotions at work.

In no way am I trying to play down social policy achievements of various countries in this matter. For example, the Nordic welfare states of Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland are often referred to as ‘women-friendly’ welfare states. Here, personal autonomy is not burdened by one’s gender, and work-life balance policies have helped reduce various inequalities.

These include equal pay for equal work, prohibition of employment discrimination based on one’s gender, public provision of childcare and various reforms in family and pensions legislation.

More than 100 countries have some form of political quotas

In Nordic and other liberal democracies, there has also been a gradual increase in women in politics. This has taken place due to a variety of factors, which also include quotas. Indeed, according to quotaproject.org, more than 100 countries have some form of political quotas, though this also includes voluntary quotas imposed by political parties.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has made it clear that he wants a parliamentary discussion on gender quotas in the near future. Some political party and civil society players have already declared themselves in favour or against. They obviously have every right to declare their positions, though I do hope that they consult with social-scientific evidence and experts before rushing with conclusions on the social media.

In this regard, I appeal for the widening of the remit of the gender equality debate. Some examples have already been touched upon in the public sphere. For example, Malta’s parliament does not have family-friendly working hours. And by the way, there are many Dad politicians, too. Others have referred to the need for updating policies related to violence, abuse and reproductive rights.

On a more optimistic note, some emphasise that there is a growing number of women in Malta’s labour market, that females are outperforming malesin education, and that policy reforms such as childcare are helping improve gender equality.

But I think that other aspects related to gender inequality are being elbowed out of the debate. Some matters have to do with social justice. For example, is the national debate giving enough importance to ‘invisible’ women in various employment sectors? I don’t think so. Here I am referring to women with low wages in regular jobs, women in casual or precarious work, and women with no union representation.

Would it be right to celebrate the entry of a minority of women into the pinnacles of politics and employment, when so many other women are facing difficult social circumstances? Does the fact that some women make it to the top suffice to declare gender equality? Are gender neutral legal provisions the be-all and end-all of policymaking?

I would answer in the negative. Indeed, I believe that discourse on gender neutrality and quotas should not alienate us from realities such as one’s social class, age, nationality, situations and so forth. And by the way, there are exploited men too: likewise, many happen to be politically voiceless.

Thus, when new policies are discussed, let us keep in mind that society is not simply made up of monolithic genders. Different persons may have different possibilities, experiences, interests and choices.

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