Sunday 25 September 2022

For more women in public life, someone else has to run the household

This article first appeared in Malta Today

Whenever I am asked my opinion about quotas for women to increase their participation in political and public roles, I always have mixed feelings.

On the one hand I realize that the quota system has worked in many countries, specifically Scandinavian ones, although more recent longitudinal studies have shown that there were other factors at work to help boost female participation. In his paper, “The Norwegian Experience of Gender quotas” for example, presented at a conference in 2004 by Prof Richard E. Matland, he explained what happened when Norway’s Labour Party made a conscious decision to introduce quotas for the 1985 elections:

One important factor was that a large section of the party elite viewed it as the right thing to do. This policy has never been seen as a necessary evil or a temporary measure only to be utilized during a transitory phase, as it has been described in some countries. Rather, it is seen as a legitimate way to ensure that women receive the representation that they deserve. That women made up one-half of the population and one-half of Labour voters and hence deserved one-half of the nominations was a compelling argument. A second important factor was that Gro Harlem Brundtland was the leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister for most of the 1980s. She was a powerful force who was actively engaged with a large number of issues, including pushing the Labour Party in the direction of greater representation of women. Her support for quotas was not necessarily decisive, but it was significant. Finally, even when there was a degree of reluctance on the part of some men within the party or some party strategists, the political reality was that the party was under pressure from the Socialist Left with respect to this issue. Leftist women within the Labour Party could easily say, ‘You do not need to accede to our demands, we can just leave, the distance to the Socialist Left is not very great. If you are not willing to provide us with meaningful representation then we can simply move over to a party that will do so’. In many ways the Labour Party was forced to adopt this policy so as not to lose votes to the Socialist Left.” 

The result was that the share of female representatives in Norway increased from 9.3 percent in 1969 to a share of 41.1 percent in 2017.  

But as has happened with the debate on quotas here, all over the world there have been similar counter-arguments against the concept, namely that giving women preference over men goes against the principles of equality, voters should be able to decide who is elected, it would mean electing women simply because of their gender rather than their qualifications and many women do not want to get elected just because they are women.   I can sympathize with these arguments because they concur with my own reservations on this issue. What woman wants to feel that she has become an MP or a local councillor not because she was elected through a popular vote, but because there was a reserved empty seat which needed to be filled by a woman, and she just happened to be next in line?  It almost feels like ‘cheating’, for want of a better word; as if you didn’t quite get that seat through merit but simply because it was left empty, so what the heck, you might as well take it.  On the other hand, I can also understand those who argue that without a jump start and a drastic measure such as quotas, female participation will remain low. 

As I see it, however, while pushing for more women to run for elections and hold public office is a positive measure because it ensures that half the population is properly represented, quotas will still not solve the crux of the issue. The problem will continue to be finding enough women to step forward who are ready to take on this public role.  So what stops women from taking up the challenge? Well, it is the same reason why there are women who cannot work full-time, or who do not accept promotions or high-flying jobs requiring them to work 12-14 hour days. At the end of the working day, most women, unless they are single and childless (or whose children have grown up), turn the key in the front door of their home and have to turn into housewives.  They still have to cook, care for the children, do daily chores and generally run the household in the limited time available before they fall asleep, exhausted, before facing another day.  Unless one has a very strong support network of a husband who shares in the housework, grandparents or other relatives who chip in with child care, and domestic help who come in to cook, clean, wash and fold laundry, the jobs of making sure that the house is clean, that the children’s needs are being met, and that there is food in the fridge and on the table, are still, on the whole, the domain of the woman.  

If one is going to throw running an election campaign into the mix, with all the additional hours required to be out there pounding the pavement (or even appearing on TV and radio, writing the obligatory newspaper column and being present on social media) there is not enough time in the day. All of this while the woman is also probably holding down her own job. Something will have to give, and a woman who cannot count on a number of people ‘having her back’ to make sure family life and the household run relatively smoothly, will be heading for a complete meltdown.  Becoming a female candidate (much like raising children) really does take a village. Is it any wonder that many women, even though they are extremely capable and competent, take one look at what is required and balk at how much stress it is going to cause?  Who wants to come home after a day of meetings to be faced by a glum-faced husband and squabbling children who still haven’t had their bath and are demanding help with their homework?

If a female candidate does make it through the gruelling campaign and is elected, her life and that of her family will never be the same, and unless her husband is completely on board with the immense pressures of public life and the huge chunks of her time which are required from morning till night, and unless he is willing to pick up the slack – something will have to give.

So how do men do it? I hear you ask.  Well, the answer should be obvious. The majority of men who are in politics and in high profile roles have a wife who is ensuring that their home life is running smoothly.  As far as I can tell, there are not that many male MPs or Ministers with young children whose wife has a high profile job as well, which requires her to be away from home for long stretches of time.  When it comes to backbenchers who, apart from their parliamentary work, also continue to practice their profession, the number of work commitments is even greater – I always wonder how many hours of the day do they actually spend at home?  Do they have time to attend parents’ day or school activities? And somehow I doubt it is they who are doing the shopping and making sure there is enough toilet paper.

If you think these domestic issues holding women back from politics are unique to Malta, think again.   According to the Pew Research Centre which studies social and demographic trends (September 2018):  “About half of the American public (51%) says that, in general, it’s better for a woman who wants to reach high political office to have children before entering politics; 26% say it would be better to wait until she is well-established in her political career, while 19% say it would be better for a woman who aspires to higher office to not have children at all.”

The women in Malta who have been successful in their political careers either have children who are already grown up, or in the cases of those with younger children, they have husbands who have clearly been completely supportive, encouraging them to go for it.    It is this, I think, more than any other factor, which will determine an increase in female participation.  No amount of quotas will push a woman into the public sphere if the stress of doing so, because she has no tangible network of support, is simply not worth the sacrifice. 

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