Back in the days, having a daughter was considered by many fathers (who were the sole breadwinners of the family) as a financial burden. Why? Fathers were expected to pay dowry to the to the groom, and to pay for the wedding ceremony. Daughters were not expected to contribute financially towards the family but were required to help the mother with house chores. Such obligations were nonexistent if you had a son. Sons were not expected to help around the house but on the other hand were required to bring income into the family from a very young age. Back then, parents knew that their daughter's choice of future career was limited by gender-biased roles such as secretarial work, teaching or nursing. Other 'male' jobs were simply not an option. Parents also knew that whatever their daughter's choice of career, the latter would come to a complete stop upon marriage as, from that moment on, their role in society would solely and exclusively consist of taking care of the newly-formed family and to eventually bear children. This was the case in Malta, and still hold true in many developing countries. Envisaging a scenario where married women are legally prohibited from seeking employment seems to be a prehistoric idea. However, this scenario was a reality up to a few decades ago and people in our lives and circles remember those times when women's careers and future became defined by a wedding ring upon their finger. The law insisted on the notion that a woman's place is in the kitchen and in quite the literal sense of the phrase.
As a woman, as a female lawyer who was able to further my career despite my gender, despite my marital status, despite the fact that I have a family of my own, I do realise that women's rights have come a long way. But have we reached our potential? Do we still encounter obstacles along the way that are gender-biased. Is there real equality in today's world which reflects the intention of our legislators or is it still a man's world? Both local and international legislation prohibit any form of discrimination on the basis of gender, which basically means that only objective criteria such as qualifications and experience can be the determining factor in the success or otherwise of a job interview or application. There are no boundaries as to what a woman may achieve and what career path she might choose. By way of an example, while in Malta it was unheard of having a female lawyer back in the fifties or sixties, statistics nowadays show that there are more females than males become lawyers. This proves that there are open opportunities and that the sky's the limit for anyone who's willing to strive and work hard to achieve. But is this so in practice or are women still encountering difficulties which their male counterparts do not face? Women often find themselves having to prove themselves beyond normal expectations and beyond anything that their male colleagues are expected to, simply because they are women. The pressure of having to prove oneself, not as a professional but as a female within that profession, and to be deemed worthy of that title is still a reality. It is only when that added obstacle is surmounted that a female is fully accepted within the inner-circles of a male-dominated world. But it is not the only obstacle women face. Local and international legislation prohibit any form of salary gap based on gender but statistics show that women are still paid less when compared to their male counterparts, thus defying the equal pay for work of equal value rule. Ellen Pompeo, an American actress and the star on US TV series Grey's Anatomy, opened up about salary gaps in Hollywood and has taken on the role to speak out on the injustice female actresses face when it comes to salaries.
But how is this possible when legislation clearly prohibits such an injustice? One of the main reasons behind this open secret is because financial compensation packages are deemed to be highly confidential and private. No one speaks openly about his / her income with colleagues over a cup of coffee, unless colleagues are very close friends or family or their salaries are public knowledge. Asking colleagues information about their salaries is deemed in most cultures to be rude, intrusive and too personal. This secretive nature behind salaries and financial packages is paving the way for injustice and gender discrimination. Data protection legislation ironically makes it even more difficult for an employee to discover or prove a salary gap and only recourse to court can one unveil that injustice.
In the meantime, education is key. Ignorance in such cases is not bliss and unless we take a stand, speak out and challenge the current open or not-so-open secret scenario, it was and will still be a Man's World!
Dr Abigail Critien
Employment Law - Family Law - Civil Law
This commentary should not be regarded as legal advice. If you are facing legal issues relating to your job, kindly contact us so we can assist you.