Correcting the gender corrective mechanism

As much as I tried to shut my senses to the commotion around the gender corrective mechanism that has been tried and tested, for the first time, a few weeks ago following Malta’s 2022 General Elections, I still felt I could not miss this opportunity to speak my mind. Roughly a year ago, when the mechanism was about to be introduced in Maltese law, I had reasoned that pushing women into parliament is the right thing to do, because, based on the understanding that men and women are different, and bring with them different propositions, it pays to give women an advantage because ultimately this will translate into benefits for society.

Having said that, I continued to harbour my doubts. The fact that, whenever the subject comes up in private conversation, I always hear strong objections, from both men and women, adds weight to only one side of the balance. We all know how persons in the public domain reacted. Criminal lawyer and former PN MP Dr Franco Debono declared that the mechanism had failed; ADPD candidate Mina Tolu stated that it had backfired; Gżira mayor Conrad Borg Manché said that the mechanism made no sense; and newly elected PN MP Eve Borg Bonello, who at the tender age of 18 entered Parliament on the gender ticket, does not agree with the mechanism, and suggested that it actually penalised women.

It’s clear that there is a strong opposition to this mechanism. I’ve heard people insist that competent women do not need any help to get elected, and that it is humiliating to be given a privilege in this manner. I’ve heard men complain that this mechanism is discriminatory and an insult to those who put in the hard work to get elected on their own merits, and that it was women themselves who withdrew their support and chose not to vote for female candidates. All very valid observations. And judging by the feedback, it would seem that the predominant feeling is that the mechanism is not fair.

Which is why, when I came across this passage from ‘The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure’ by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, it resonated loudly:

Most people want individuals to be treated well, and they recoil from cases where individuals are treated unfairly in order to bring about some kind of group-level equality. This is why quotas generally produce such strong backlash: they mandate a violation of procedural justice (people are treated differently based on their race, sex, or some other factor) and distributive justice (rewards are not proportional to inputs) to achieve a specific end-state of equal outcomes.”

The way I see it, there are three layers to the issue of having women in parliament: the why, the what for, and the how. The first one is purpose and this is where we take a good look at why we should have women occupying seats in parliament. It is what motivates and also justifies any action we will need to take to make it happen, irrespective of whether it ends up being labelled as affirmative, positive, corrective, or even discriminatory.

The second layer holds the objective. If the general aim is to have ‘gender equality’, a concept that has different meanings to different people, you will inevitably trigger different expectations, between those who will be satisfied only if there is an equal (or close to equal) representation of men and women inside the building, and others who are quite happy if the doors of opportunity are open to all, regardless of sex.

Finally, we can focus on the famous mechanism that has grabbed so much attention, and start by questioning why it’s called a gender corrective mechanism when in reality it’s intended to address inequalities on the basis of sex. My point here is that if we choose to correct for inequalities of representation by gender, we need to be using a far more complicated mechanism that enables people of different genders to be elected to parliament, and I’m sure that means more than two categories.

I had written about purpose, and I think my viewpoint remains valid. The idea is that you have a mix of problems to solve in modern society; women might be better suited to handle some of these problems (in the same way men might be better suited to handle others); and it therefore makes sense to want females to be part of the global solution. This part is simple.

As we move on to equality, things start to get a little rough. It is very difficult to have an honest conversation about gender equality without risking to offend many people with all the misunderstandings. Previously, in debates and in my writing, I have asked whether gender equality is really the problem we need to solve, and whether it would make more sense to have a set of more meaningful targets around it, such as working towards progress in the social, commercial and political domains, respecting human nature and personal choices, supporting collaboration between the sexes, and empowering women in leadership and entrepreneurship.

This leaves us with the need for a tool that brings about the change we wish to see. As it is, the gender corrective mechanism might have delivered some results, but it clearly didn’t pass the test of fitness. Which means that, if we go back on our steps and agree that, yes, we need to have women taking political decisions, and this is because we believe they can make a difference, but no, we don’t need to impose on ourselves the rigidity of an equal outcome, and for this we need a mechanism that does not violate justice, then we can work together to transform a corrective mechanism into a selective one, having a process that rewards people primarily on the basis of their inputs while also taking into account other criteria, including sex.

I’m sure the data from this General Election can be used to test and design a mechanism that gives us results and is fair and acceptable to most.

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