While travelling back and forth between Manchester (my university city) and London (for band rehearsals), UK press were covering the 100 year mark since the first time (some) women got the vote in general elections. Journalists arrived in Manchester; the birthplace of key suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and, as usual, journalists assembled around the vicinity of Westminster down south. In Westminster, on the 6th of February in 1918, a law was passed that began to change the face of UK politics for decades to come. The Representation of the People Act allowed for roughly 2 in every 5 women in the UK to vote. Indeed, it was also the first time that women could now be legally permitted to sit as a member of parliament.
It was an important achievement. But it was only the first step. The 1960s saw a lot more liberalisation including legalising abortion and no-fault divorce. These were also pivotal steps but by no means game, set, and match. Nowadays, there are still social, economic and political inequalities between men and women, not just in the UK, but throughout the world in varying degrees. Joint with Slovakia and the Czech Republic, the UK is among the worst performing EU states on the issue of gender equality. At least after Brexit, they can be a poorly performing nation on gender equality outside the European Union. The UK still has a gender pay gap, a huge disparity in the fields of science and technology, and there remains a distance in terms of access to the top jobs. Vĕra Jourová is the EU commissioner for gender equality. She said that “this backwards or stagnating trend I find truly embarrassing. Equality is not about women becoming like men, but tapping the full potential of our society by creating an environment of choice… Women are discriminated against when it comes to their career paths and access to jobs. Men are discriminated against their private lives and put under huge pressure to focus on their career and making money.”
But how is Gibraltar doing? Does Gibraltar do well for gender equality and female empowerment? Well, it is very hard to tell when there is no consistent polling or ongoing studies about the state of our democracy and society. Developed nations tend to see positives in commissioning studies and polls to inform future policy, so the same mistakes do not get made and that proactive decision-making can address long-term systemic issues. Instead, we have to resort to the echo-chamber of social media to pour our grievances. Our opinions are likely to be highly influenced by our religious beliefs, political worldviews, and content that we read online. Of course, this is unavoidable. Social media is built on commoditisation, selling you viewpoints and content to consume via advertising and algorithms. If you are a liberal, social media is likely to make you more liberal. If you are somewhat conservative, you will be made more conservative because Facebook, Twitter and Google work by giving you material that it thinks you might like based on what you have already searched. It is getting harder and harder to reach authentic conclusions, not that it was not a challenge in the days of traditional press. But this is not enough. We must first have an accurate picture of where our society is at and where we are going.
Equally, we need to get a good account of where we think our society is at, and where we want it to go. The public sphere must have a conversation about our existential formation as a society. Are we a liberal democracy? Are we a democracy that is informed by religious values? Can we be both? These are the sort of questions that need to be revisited, or else any progress or, at least, any clarity will be hard to come by. Community discussions in a place of Gibraltar’s size and population can make a lot of difference very quickly. Together Gibraltar (TG) hosted a public meeting on the environment in November soon after it launched as a movement, but at the end of January they held a meeting on gender equality and women’s issues. How rare is it that women are the focal point of conversation in our society, save for the pageants? TG assembled a panel comprised of a committee member of the Gibraltar Women’s Association (GWA) Tamsin Suarez, the founder of No Means No Nyree Turnock, and a long-serving and well-respected teacher from the community Conchita Triay – an all-female panel. The meeting was participatory and deliberative at the same time, with women giving their voice and raising concerns over pension equality, paternity leave and gender-equal pay. Indeed, recently the GWA came out in support of campaigning for the legalisation of abortion, something that happened in the UK in the mid-1960s. Abortion in particular is an emotive issue, but the fact that women are talking about it openly is surely an encouraging thing for most people who care about the progress of the community, irrelevant of their opinion on the issue.
The most symbolic inequality, however, is the political glass ceiling. Any democrat living in a democracy would be shocked by the lack of women sitting in our parliament. We not only have a lack of women as MPs, but there is a lack of female involvement in the political process. NGO figures like Janet Howitt and the members of the GWA are undoubtedly proving themselves to be inspirational across generations in the community. They are fighting for positive change for the sake of positive change. But there is a glass ceiling in the corridors of power. We merely have 2 women in parliament out of 17 members. We have never had a female Chief Minister or a female Leader of the Opposition. The first female Prime Minister in the UK was elected in 1979! A lot of this has to do with political discourse that is invariably led by male lawyers with either no real concern or idea on how to empower women. It also has to do with the systemic societal restrictions that are still placed on women, especially mothers. More recently, the volume of trolls and social media harassment is not something anyone should put up with if they have an interest in improving Gibraltar’s politics. Why would you bother if you were subjected to that every time you voiced an opinion? It is tough, and these are not the only reasons why women do not feel at home in our politics as much as men do. This is inequality in practice and does not belong in any honest democracy. In real democracies, it cannot be a case of men feeling like they live in one, but women feel limited.
Quite simply, we cannot compare Gibraltar with the UK with total accuracy. We have a different history. Our democratic progress began while, and after, the continent was at war. Our democratic history is still short, though storied nonetheless. The UK has had a successful feminist movement in the suffragettes that literally fought to the death in many cases for their rights. The circumstances are different. But that does not mean we have to accept the status quo. We must have the conversation, and it feels like we are coming to it. Once we have a sustained conversation on gender equality in our society, we will be in a more likely environment for women to be represented better in politics. And who knows, maybe we will have a female chief minister some day.