Parliament: The Last Glass Ceiling?

By Mark Montegriffo

By Mark Montegriffo

On International Women’s Day we are reminded of the icons of feminism through the years. From Sylvia and Emmeline Pankhurst, to the textile workers that protested in Petrograd 100 years ago today, which some argue kick-started the Russian Revolution. We also take confidence in recent events that should give us hope for the future, such as the record-breaking women’s marches against the Trump administration.

Indeed, a quick look at feminist history shows that women found a platform in Socialist Parties or workers unions around the world. Shamefully, in many cases autocratic governments did not advance women’s rights as much as they should have. Our ‘socialist’ government (which has only one female minister) – though it would be hard to call them authentic socialists given public disapproval over the management of the Marrache case and the use of recruitment companies, - last year celebrated the unveiling of the monument for women in Gibraltar and was undoubtedly a proud moment for the crowd gathered on location and also for the wife of the Chief Minister, who officially unveiled the piece of art.

Whether the thought behind the design is to represent an incremental progress for women or whether it is ironically resembling a high-heeled shoe (or perhaps it is an impression of the Rock), the symbolism of recognising the struggle that women continue to face everywhere and in different forms is prescient. Maybe the invisibility of the woman is a symbol of her as being overlooked in society. Older Gibraltarians can look at the monument and reflect on how far we have come in this regard. Younger Gibraltarians should look at the monument as a source of inspiration and reflect on how far we have yet to go.

Upon reading of the Chief Minister’s wife’s speech, and without intention to define Mrs. Picardo by her relation to her male partner, what immediately sprung to mind was the lack of progress in the sphere political representation. Sadly, only two of the 17 seats in the Gibraltar parliament are occupied by women and, throughout Gibraltar’s political history, you could count the number of female MPs on one hand.

Since we tend to use the United Kingdom as a yardstick for political and legal development, it would not necessarily go amiss to compare our percentage of women in parliament of a rounded up 12% to the UK’s 29%. If we are to compare our figure to parliaments around the world, we have fewer women in parliament as a percentage than Sierra Leone.

Admittedly, it would be a facile abstraction to draw firm conclusions on the relative progress of political development of Gibraltar and Sierra Leone...though it should at least cause concern that over 70 years since our path began in earnest as a democratic nation that we have so few female representatives.

But one hopes that the monument is a start of a change in attitude in the political realm where women are actively encouraged to participate through the way we conduct our discourse. One also hopes that the architects of the monument will be inspirations, just as much as female politicians who have served or stood for the House of Parliament (and Gibraltar Women’s Association activists), for many generations to come. Quotas in a democracy are unnecessary if politics is conducted to achieve tangible benefits to the community from a cross-section that represents it.

Some will claim that an increase in the number of women in parliament would not, by mere definition, have a practical effect on the community. The instrumental trend of female empowerment seems to have huge effects on communities that experience it, but one does not even have to argue that far to prove the point at hand: increased representation for women and minorities does not simply just provide a picture of how far a community has come, but also how far it will go as it will open the doors for further progress.

There are many forms that a determined effort to change our political culture might take. It could be a new party, or a current one at that, that would outwardly advocate as a main objective an increased number of women in their candidate lists. It could be via a cross-party consensus that this is something that must change. Maybe comprehensive schools that do not divide by gender could have a role. Perhaps even a feminist movement in Gibraltar could motivate and promote female citizens who look at parliament and see it as a cabal of middle-aged, upper-middle class, white, wealthy lawyers instead of a legislative body where ideas are at the forefront as opposed to personalities.

Is a nation in which one of its main cultural pride and joys is an annual beauty pageant a society which feminists might see as a beacon of female liberation? This is obviously one of several instances one can observe and it does not take away from the fact that female representation in positions of political powers is too low. So while this International Women’s Day we should be cognisant of the ridiculous inequalities and injustices still faced by women around the world, we should also look closer to home. We should ask questions about what gender equality looks like and what is stopping us, as a community, from reaching it.

Mark is studying Politics and Philosophy at the University of Manchester.