A lot of talk about quotas for women politicians is doing the rounds, aiming to encourage more participation. But quotas don’t get to the root of the problem.

Let’s look at facts, not talk. I was recently appointed to a committee which received some media attention in political circles. What was the reaction? Almost immediately, an online government propaganda machine described me as the ‘token woman’ in this set-up, there to do the ‘bidding’ of men as their ‘handmaiden’. I am not joking.

Ladies, listen closely. This was now, in 2017. Beneath the official veneer of promoting gender equality, this is the reality. All too often, even with years of study and experience, women are readily and flippantly presented as never quite good enough. And nobody bats an eyelid, or even notices.

The odds are stacked against women being taken seriously. This is surely made worse if they are openly awarded places just to make up the numbers. Occupying a quota position can diminish a woman’s credibility further.

Besides the snipes about tokenism, attempts to mark a woman’s physical appearance as lousy are par for the course. Women must live with continual comments about their looks, and the higher you go the worse it is. It is a global thing. When Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May met recently, it was the shape of their legs which held media attention. After show business, there is hardly another sphere of public life in which women’s appearances are scrutinised so savagely as in politics.

Women seem to instinctively stay out of the political fray, while popular professions such as law and medicine are overflowing with women. But still the images and auras of authority often reside with men. Women must work twice as hard to achieve an equal level of influence and respect. Quotas can help in the short term, to break invisible barriers. But once a good number of women have managed to make inroads into the political sphere, trailblazing the way for other women to follow, quotas should be unnecessary. They may even be counter-productive.

The percentage of female politicians all over the world is unimpressive. But in Malta we do already have enough women in Parliament to prove that where there is a will there is a way. They have shown us that it is possible for women to have successful political careers, professional lives and families too. This requires huge levels of energy and drive, but that is not in short supply. There are plenty of young, dynamic, capable and clever women out there.

Occupying a quota position can diminish a woman’s credibility further

Effective role models for aspiring women politicians therefore exist, but their persistently low numbers show that this is not enough. While we understand that women can make it (if they work hard enough), still too few actually take up the challenge. Something always holds them back. Things have changed for women, but not enough to be complacent.

So, how to encourage more women to enter politics? For example, would the introduction of optional full-time positions in Parliament help women, with more daytime sessions? But if women opt for part-time will they get stuck on the lower rungs of the ladder, as with other jobs on reduced hours? Family-friendly times are good, but that is still not the whole picture. Politics is a male-dominated world, here in Malta, with stiff and nasty competition from both inside and outside. Women partly resist going into politics because of the unwritten rules of the game, which are off-putting.

More backing for women politicians is needed but quotas can backfire. The doors to enter politics are already open. But women must also look hard at the assumptions they make about themselves and their own capabilities – and about other women.

The spokesman’s audacity

The Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Keith Schembri, has again been invited to a hearing of the EU’s PANA committee to explain his side of the story on his alleged companies in Panama or elsewhere.

Kurt Farrugia, head of government communications, chimed in and described the PANA chairman, Werner Langen, as attempting to join a Nationalist Party campaign. Langen reacted and ‘expressed surprise’ at the audacity of the official spokesman of a government holding the EU presidency.

Schembri’s reply to the first invitation was bad enough. He had refused to attend at the eleventh hour and even questioned PANA’s mandate. The committee has now asked Joseph Muscat to ‘use his authority’ to convince Schembri to attend a hearing in May.

Enough of this charade. If Schembri does not want to fulfil the expectations of holding a public post, then he should leave Castille and return to private business.

He cannot have it both ways. Whether his post is a position of trust or not, is irrelevant. It is not (as weakly claimed) only elected politicians who are accountable to the public, but the entire machinery of government. Schembri sits at the heart of the Office of the Prime Minister and holds considerable power. He is fully expected to be above board and accountable for his actions. If he cannot understand this basic point, then it just shows how unfit he is for his position.