29 November 2006

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Falling by the wayside

Why are there more women at university but not in employment or in political positions?

Matthew Vella

Women in Malta are the leading cohort in university enrolment, and yet their presence in the labour force and political power is conspicuously lacking. They are far superior in their educational attainment, but just over a third of the female labour force is in employment, and the Maltese parliament is entirely male-dominated.
According to the World Economic Forum’s gender gap index, more women than men are literate in Malta, more complete their secondary education, and more women continue studying at university. In the latter case, a third of women move on to tertiary education, while only a quarter of men opt for university.
But Malta enjoys one of the lowest rankings in the European Union on gender equality, following a Mediterranean trend that usually finds women in the background, retreating to family life early on in their lives, despite the introduction of maternity leave. The WEF standings find Malta ranking 71 in the global index, following Greece and France, and just ahead of Italy (77) and Cyprus (83) which have the lowest rankings in the EU.
They in fact reflect the low levels of political participation by women in decision-making bodies and generally poor scores in terms of economic participation and opportunity in these countries. Malta’s parliament is only composed of 9% in women, where all elected females in the government side occupy a ministerial position, although this forms just 15% of the government – and since 1974 just one woman has ever been head of state.
The figures also reflect global trends where the world comes close to eliminating the gap between women and men on education and health, but only 50% of the gap on economic participation and opportunity has been closed. Taken together, women in 115 countries representing over 5 billion of the world’s population, have only 15% of the political empowerment endowed to men.
However, in a paper by State University of New York professor John C. Lane, an authority on the Maltese electoral system and its history, what accounts for the paucity of women MPs in Malta is not a shortage of ballot positions, a lack of qualified women candidates, or significant voter prejudice against female candidates – but due to the unwillingness or inability of party elites to recruit a substantial number of women candidates.
Lane correctly notes that Maltese women as a group are not politically apathetic. “Their voter turnout has exceeded 90% in all recent elections; nearly half of the major parties’ registered members are women; and the parties have extensive local women’s associations. But these involvements remain essentially marginal and fail to serve as a springboard for political careers.”
In fact, in the twelve elections between 1947 and 1992, women secured 3.89% of all candidacies and 3.74% of all electoral victories. The 100 candidacies undertaken by women in the twelve elections since 1947 resulted in 23 victories at the polls. This 23% success rate for women candidates compares to an only slightly larger success rate (25%) for male candidates.
Lane says these figures indicate that once on the ballot, women as a group, over time and on average, have had just about the same chance of being elected as their male counterparts. “When one examines these explicitly expressed voter preferences it therefore seems reasonable to conclude that evidence of an ‘anti-women’ vote is decidedly weak.”
And that may be surprising for a Mediterranean country where traditional social values have been dominant over the years. But Malta is also an island where party loyalties are still strong, and where power goes beyond gender bias – maybe no stronger is there an example in the loyalty commanded by Giovanna Debono, the Gozo minister whose vote count has increased exponentially in 2003. With 2,703 first count votes, Debono had already pipped the former Gozo minister Anton Tabone in 1987, and she maintained a 4,000 plus vote right up till 1998, and then won in 2003 with a stunning 6,500 votes, a veritable confirmation of her electoral staying power.

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