Women’s day, women’s month… does it matter?

Every year, as March approaches, discussions about women’s rights and the challenges they face increase. The focus turns towards Women’s Day, prompting corporations, organizations, businesses, schools, and nearly every entity to make efforts to celebrate women. While the intentions behind these efforts are generally pure, it is crucial for us to collectively realize that women today don’t require 24 hours, a week, or a month for celebration. Instead, they need our collaborative efforts to ensure they receive equal opportunities, recognition, and overall rights compared to their male counterparts.

From our perspective, women deserve more in the fields of entrepreneurship, business, and start-ups. So, what hinders women from active participation in these domains?
As we explore these challenges, it’s crucial to acknowledge that the difficulties, statistics, and examples presented in the article aim to identify solutions.

Let’s call it as it is – a woman’s journey to success is longer and more demanding.

Truth is, gender bias doesn’t happen once or twice; it happens day after day, week after week. And its consequences? They are far more inherent than a sexist joke at university or a degrading comment at the workplace.

Similar to other stereotypes, gender biases play a significant role in shaping our mindset. Their effects can be enduring, stretching across decades. In the past, the belief in women’s intellectual inferiority to men was widely accepted as an unquestionable fact. Despite numerous studies debunking these stereotypes over the years, our society persists with gendered lines, influencing the lives of us all.

In spite of the strides made by women in advocating for gender equity at the workplace, a persistent gap remains; women still earn less, get promoted less frequently, and continue to be underrepresented in the highest leadership positions in business. Further, biases in hiring and promotion limit women’s career advancements as it has become way too common for young women to hit a glass ceiling that prevents them from moving up the career ladder. These facts – as harsh as they seem – paint a sobering picture of our current reality.

The numbers also speak for themselves; while Malta has made significant progress on achieving gender equality, concerns remain about challenges rooted in discriminatory gender roles and biases. With 67.8 points out of 100, Malta ranked 14th in the EU on the Gender Equality Index in 2023 – 2.4 points below the EU score as a whole.

Additionally, while women’s employment rate has increased in the past six years, it remains low compared to other European Union states. In 2018, the rate stood at 57.6% compared to 80.1% for men. Moreover, of these women in the labour market only 8.3% were self-employed compared to a higher 19.2% for men.

Further, a common misconception prevailing today still, is that women have the same opportunities and face the same challenges in entrepreneurship as men. While in fact, women face significant struggle accessing funding, networks, mentorship opportunities, and the balancing act of entrepreneurship with family responsibilities adds further hurdles. Equally important, the underrepresentation of women in leadership roles and a lack of visible role models discourage aspiring women entrepreneurs, as 76% of CEOs in Malta are predominantly male. However, it is not all bad news: The percentage of women among CEOs and senior officials has increased from 19% in 2011 to 24% in 2021, while female employers have increased from 15% to 22%.

The time to act and flip the narrative was yesterday.

Sometimes called the “add women and stir” approach, people tend to think that having more women present is all that is needed to promote change. But simply adding women into a workplace does not change the organisational structures and systems that benefit men more than women.

Women in leadership positions encounter subtle yet soul-crushing micro-aggressions and outright discrimination in their professional lives, which discourages others from taking the leap in following any entrepreneurial venture.

One example strikes most, when in 2018, the departure of computer scientist and mathematician Lenore Blum from Carnegie Mellon University sent shockwaves through the community. As a co-founder of the Association for Women in Mathematics, Blum had played a vital role in shaping the discipline. However, she revealed feeling gradually sidelined from the very centre she had helped establish – facing barriers in participating in crucial decisions, encountering dismissive attitudes, and experiencing being consistently overlooked. Blum stated after her resignation that ‘subtle biases and microaggressions pile up, few of which on their own rise to the level of ‘let’s take action,’ but are insidious nonetheless.’

A more specific example to Malta presents itself as the UN Working Group on discrimination against women and girls visiting Malta in July 2023 stated that ‘Despite strong constitutional guarantees for gender equality, impressive legislative and institutional frameworks, as well as specialised mechanisms for implementing gender equality policies, we heard repeatedly that progress has been hampered by patriarchal structures and beliefs.’

While this might be easily overlooked by some, these outdated biases actually have staggering socio-economic ripple effects, limiting women’s agency and costing societies millions, if not billions, of dollars in lost GDP.

To make change happen, policy makers, stakeholders, civil society organisations, educational institutions, and the public and private sector must work harder together. With that being said – we all share the same responsibility of unlearning stereotypes and breaking societal norms that reinforce gender biases. And to an extent, women too are required to play their part and not give in to the ‘victim mentality’ that holds them, and women everywhere back.

In the realm of education, there exists a powerful opportunity to challenge and reshape societal norms and stereotypes, particularly those entrenched in gender biases. Through education, we can break the cycle of traditional expectations and cultivate a new narrative that embraces diversity and inclusivity.

Equally important, breaking gender biases in entrepreneurship and leadership roles is a pivotal step towards creating a more equitable and dynamic professional landscape. By challenging traditional expectations and dismantling stereotypes, we pave the way for a diverse range of talents to flourish. It’s not just about eradicating barriers; it’s about fostering a cultural shift that values merit over gender.

At JA Malta, we take it upon ourselves to bridge the gap in anything and everything we do; every programme, every initiative, and every idea. On this note, we are proud to run Girls Go Circular, a programme which aims to empower schoolgirls and students in general by enhancing their digital and leadership skills while fostering an understanding of the circular economy and encouraging young students to come up with their own innovative solutions to societal and environmental challenges. For the sake of truly empowering young girls, we need to present them with not only a day to celebrate the fierce women who paved the way for this conversation to take place, but by offering them tools and instruments to thrive in their communities.

In the end, gender equality is not a zero-sum game: more inclusive societies benefit both men and women – equally.