Following International Women’s Day earlier this month, a local consultancy firm, Seed, conducted a study reavealing that only 11 per cent of directors at publicly listed companies in Malta are women.

Just recently, an advert by Benna depicting a male office worker fantasising about a female colleague has also sparked controversial debate on social media about gender equality at the workplace, and whether visual gender stereotypes depicted in the ad have any place in modern society.

With debate on women at the workplace in full swing, this week’s episode of The Boardroom, presented by business writer Jo Caruana, welcomed three successful entrepreneurs to discuss the issue of female empowerment and gender quotas.

Rebecca Bonnici, Owner and CEO of Business English Language School Ltd (BELS), Krystle Penza, Managing Director at Mvintage Jewels and Martina Zammit, CEO and Co-founder of Gadgets took part in this mornings episode, where views about gender quotas diverged.

Gender quotas are defined as a positive measure instrument aimed at accelerating the achievement of gender-balanced participation and representation by establishing a defined proportion or number of places or seats to be filled or allocated to men/women.

In view of females being underrepresented in corporate boards and Government across the globe, such a tool has been used to push female representation in such forums. 

Ms Zammit vociferously supported the idea of gender quotas to ensure balance in corporate boardrooms. Recalling her own personal experience growing up, and the experience of countless women and girls, she pointed out that visually, it was normal to see all-males in top positions.

Martina Zammit

Martina Zammit, CEO and Co-founder of Gadgets

“How can young girls grow up to be ambitious when they are used to seeing only males in certain settings?"

She stressed her belief that gender quotas should be a temporary measure, say for 10-20 years, which would allow the collective psyche to be more accustomed to seeing both men and women in leadership positions.

Ms Zammit said that currently, a major obstacle women face is confidence. She added that many hold themselves back subconsciously, and has experienced this herself when pitching projects to all-male audiences. Ms Zammit described the use of gender quotas as a necessary evil, stressing that until the collective mindset changes within society, previous wrongs must be corrected.

Ms Bonnici, on the other hand, does not believe gender quotas are the way forward. When asked whether it is harder to be a woman in the workplace today, as opposed to in the past, she says that her philosophy is not to dwell, but rather push forward with her ambitions. She credited her mother with having instilled such an attitude and acknowledged that the support systems in her life allow both herself and her partner to balance family and work.

As for gender quotas specifically, she argued that focusing on the optics of a board would not be helpful, and that education should be the key tool to fight underrepresentation.

Ms Bonnici remarked that a concerted effort to empower all children, regardless of gender, to understand that they can be successful in whatever field they wish, should they put in the work.

Rebecca Bonnici

Rebecca Bonnici, Owner and CEO of Business English Language School Ltd (BELS)

“I feel the solution to our conundrum lies with holding genders equally accountable, educating genders to be equally empowered.” Ms Bonnici was quick to qualify that she is not oblivious to the struggles women experience, and that she too has had her fair share of situations where she was overlooked, but is resolved that gender quotas are not the solution.

Ms Penza echoed similar remarks to Ms Zammit, where she agreed that there is an issue of confidence and mindset, which leads many women to hold themselves back. She remarked that it is astonishing how in 2021, debates surrounding gender equality are still appropriate and relevant.

One policy change she would seek to implement which in her view, would benefit both men and women, is the banning of single-sex schools. Ms Penza said that when boys and girls learn to respect each other from a young age, this serves to protect against psychological barriers between the sexes, introduced through stereotyping.

Krystle Penza

Krystle Penza, Managing Director at Mvintage Jewels

On the topic of female empowerment, Ms Penza said this is the process of enabling women to believe in their capabilities.

“What hurts me is that sometimes us women, instead of helping each other, we can get in each other’s way. This pains me as we are already struggling with everything we deal with – especially now that schools have been closed for a second time around.”

Ms Penza shared the difficulties of being at the helm of a business and raising a child. She pointed out that before setting up her own business, because she worked in a male-dominated office, she did not feel understood, following the birth of her child. Ms Penza stressed that while it is extremely challenging to own your own business, the degree of flexibility that comes with it is invaluable to a working parent.

Ultimately, all three guests agreed that a focus on education, especially at very young ages, is absolutely essential for women to progress into leadership positions and corporate boards.

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