Football is the soundtrack to our house this month and, in between games, we leave the television on. At one point, during the Euro pre-match programme on TVM, presenter Rodney Vassallo turned to the woman presenter sharing the studio with him and said: “U issa ngħaddu għar-rappresentatriċi femminili fuq dan il-programm.”
Cringe and double cringe. He did not even bother to hide the fact that she is not considered as a fellow presenter but as the token girl for the programme. You’d think this was a minor detail, a mere slip of the tongue, but in actual fact, it subconsciously reflects the gender problems we still face on this island.
Virginija Langbakk, director of the European Institute for Gender Equality, was in Malta last week, worried because the public face of Maltese politics is still overwhelmingly male.
She is right to be concerned. The number of women in power positions is rather depressing: of the 67 Members of Parliament, only nine are women. In the local councils’ sphere, things are also not bright: men make up 72 per cent.
Ms Langbakk believes the fault lies in the fact that Malta has less working women and therefore less women with qualifications, and consequently less women in power. I do not agree with her conclusion. The problem is that Maltese women qualified for positions of power often shy away from it. I am often at dinner tables with dynamic women who would making excellent country administrators but who would react with aghast if someone had to tell them to run for politics.
There are a number of reasons for this. Politics means hours and time away from home. True, MPs are most busy when other people are off work – evenings and weekends – because that is when the Iljieli Maltin, festas and weddings take place. But that is not the main problem. The obstacle is that Parliament sittings start at 6pm and usually end around 8 or 9pm.
The historical background to this is that traditionally all MPs used to be (men) lawyers and lawyers had court cases in the morning. Therefore, they said: “Ir-rinkontru l-Parlament jissuċjiedi fis-serata”.
Fathers have a huge role in ensuring that daughters grow up believing their gender should stop them at nothing
Times have changed and Parliament needs to change with them. In today’s world the time between 6 and 9pm is the time when the family gets to converge at home. Children come back from their extracurricular activities; parents return from work. It is the only time when family issues can be ironed, difficulties of the day discussed and the next day’s activities planned before some members of the family head to bed, others go to study or others go out.
It is already hard as it is to ensure some sort of balance between work and life, let alone if you’re taking away the evening time as well. Women with families, even if they have all it takes to be brilliant representatives, will shelf the very idea of politics ad infinitum.
“I would not be okay with not seeing my children at all, or seeing them only briefly in the mornings before they go to school,” said a friend to me the other day when we were discussing Langbakk’s claims. Maybe some women would be willing to go in for it, if they knew that their man would be willing to take the backburner, career-wise, and take over the household in the evening. However, I ask you to look around you. How many men, in this macho Mediterranean culture of ours, would be eager to do that?
Which brings us to another headache: the unequal division of time of child care and domestic tasks. In Malta, only 17 per cent of men do housework for at least one hour every day – a stark contrast to 67 per cent of women. Somehow, we all still assume that the woman has to be the main household manager rather than it being a shared responsibility.
Obviously, the solution lies in making positions of power more family-friendly. If we want more women in power positions, parliamentary sittings must be held in the morning. We cannot act on this soon enough. We need women legislators because they will bring a change to the face of Maltese politics. Studies show that in Parliaments where there is gender balance, the house becomes more focused on cooperation, less on hierarchy and there is a shift in more discussion of practical economical and emotional issues.
Hand-in-hand with this, we need a total culture change. A report published by the School of Public Affairs in Washington shows how the majority of young women, when asked about the best way to bring about social change, said working for a charity was the best way. Men’s answer was “running for political office”. The conclusions were that young men are socialised much more to think of political office. I’m sure the result would be the same here.
This has to change, if only because eliminating gender discrimination – even in power positions – is a way of ending gender-based physical and psychological violence. In this day and age in Malta, I still meet many women whose husbands do not allow them to go out and work, making them totally financially dependent on them. And we still think that that’s acceptable. It is not.
I started off this piece with the Euro games and will end with them too. I always used to watch football with my father. He’s been gone eight years now and whenever the games are on, the void is always starker for me. But on a special day like today, Father’s Day, let us all take note of what a huge role fathers have in ensuring that daughters grow up believing their gender should stop them at nothing.