Tuesday 23 July 2024

Is training women for politics positive action or patronizing?

This article first appeared on Malta Today

A lot has been said about the Labour party’s initiative to train women in the art of politics through a mentoring programme called LEAD.

Dr Miriam Dalli, who is in charge of the programme, was quoted by the press as saying that the “ambitious plan” sought to entice more women to enter politics. She admitted this would not be an easy task since women faced struggles on a daily basis. “I found myself working in a system that makes me work harder and one in which women have to constantly prove themselves“.

“We hope that by the 2027 election we will have half the candidates who are women,” Dr Dalli said.

Some have described it as an extremely patronizing and sexist concept, pointing out that by singling women out for this training, it seems to imply that they are incapable of making it on their own but need someone to hold their hand. In a nutshell, they said, it is insulting.

Others have rightly observed that all aspiring politicians, no matter their gender, could do with some political grooming and training, so why just focus on women?

For the 85 women who applied, however, it seems the idea was not so demeaning or condescending after all. That kind of response indicates that it was a niche waiting to be filled. Out of these applicants, 35 will be selected to take part in the training academy with the mentors including such seasoned politicians as former PM Alfred Sant, current PM Joseph Muscat and MEP Miriam Dalli herself.

This type of affirmative action for women is one of those thorny issues which I find difficult to decide on. Whenever I am asked what I think about quotas, for example, I always hem and haw because for me, it is not a cut and dried issue. On the one hand, because I believe that women should be treated equally to men, demanding quotas to increase female participation in decision-making posts seems to fly in the face of that very belief. There is also that niggling discomfort I always have that the woman taking up a seat on a board, or having a place reserved for her in Parliament will automatically be cast in the role of ‘token woman’. In other words she will forever be considered to have obtained that place, not through her own unique abilities. but because the seat needed to be filled by a woman, any woman. In a world where women always have to work much harder to prove themselves at the workplace, the last thing we need is to be sneered at and accused of not really deserving the post.

This all reminds me of when positive discrimination was first implemented in the US for blacks in the 1970s, to address the racial imbalance at the workplace and educational institutions. At first, there was a lot of inevitable resentment among white people who felt that the playing field had been skewed against them. Let’s face it, when you wake up one morning and you suddenly see that the senior position at your company or an academic slot has been filled by a black person purely on the basis of race, it is easy to sympathize with those who objected to what they described as ‘unfairness’. Of course, the irony was completely lost on them that for hundreds of years, the United States had been guilty of blatant unfairness against those whom they referred to as ‘Negroes’ (or worse) in all sectors of society. I think we tend to forget just how casually blacks were discriminated against until we watch such TV series as Mad Men which chronicles the civil rights turmoil of the late 1950s and early 1960s, or any other documentary or movie set in that time period for that matter.

It took a long time for things to change, and they only changed because a deliberate decision was made and the necessary legal structures were put into place. After all, when one starts off with such a huge social disadvantage from the get go, redressing the imbalance can take generations. With each black person admitted into certain areas of work or study, the more role models there were for those who came after them to look up to. It was not a matter of if a black person could reach the very top, it was only a matter of when.

Many similarities can be drawn to the gender issue, and the proposal of affirmative action for women, including the LEAD programme mentioned earlier. How long have we been talking about the need for more women to be represented? For as long as I can remember. And while it is true that ideally the changes should have come naturally, with more women stepping forward themselves and slugging it out in the trenches with the men, it seems pretty clear that this is not going to happen. The reason are various, the most obvious being the reality of women dedicating themselves to raising their children for a certain period of time, which automatically chops off a minimum of five years from their own career ambitions. But even if she manages to juggle her family obligations, a woman has other hurdles to overcome – to start off with, the guilt which society throws at wives and mothers in a way which husbands and fathers never experience, should never be discounted. If, every time you attend a meeting or work long hours you find those who are berating you about being a bad mother because you are not at home, it won’t be long before you start second-guessing yourself as well.

The other problem as I see it, is simply the social conditioning which goes back many years, which drums into women’s heads to take a back seat and let the men make all the decisions. If you think that kind of attitude does not still exist, you need to start paying more attention. When you do find women who are assertive and opinionated they are given all sorts of derogatory labels, the worst being that she is ‘too masculine’. I also find that there is still the prevailing attitude that young women do not really need to bother themselves about taking up positions of great responsibility because, “you will eventually end up getting married anyway.” Despite the fact that female students outnumber men at our University and despite the fact that many of them obtain qualifications with flying colours, marriage is still seen by many as a goal in itself. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, but it is certainly not conducive to promoting the idea of entering into the gruelling world of politics with its unsocial hours and often toxic atmosphere, especially when this is in addition to your real day job. And obviously, unless you marry a man who shares your political ambitions and will support you come what may, then you will be struggling even more, battling resentment at home while battling your way through the political jungle.

The Labour Party’s plan, which will span ten years, addresses another crucial issue. I think we can all agree that there is a dearth of politicians on both sides of the House who have an adequate political background or even the ability to speak in public and debate well in Parliament. So here I think is one aspect of political life which the PL has got right – it is not only planning seriously for the future of the party by mentoring potential female candidates , but it is also addressing the need for these candidates to be the best they can be. As we are seeing with the PN leadership contest, when you have failed to encourage new blood but rely simply on one family dynasty after another, you are paving the way for a gaping hole which no one can fill.

So despite the accusations of it being a patronizing gesture, I think that on the whole the LEAD programme is a good idea and something which the PN would do well to emulate. Who knows, perhaps I will see a female Prime Minister yet in my lifetime.

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