Feminism was not just a sixties’ notion. Long before the bra-burning we had the suffragettes in Britain hurling themselves under horses, the women’s revolution of 1848 in France fighting for the same civil liberties as men, and Valencia’s own María Carbonell who, at the end of the 19th century, campaigned for education for women.
It doesn’t stop there. Even today, only three per cent of Spanish women occupy senior positions in government and business. They receive little or nothing from the State when they have children, meaning that single mothers in particular live in extreme poverty unless their families can support them. Yet the feminists’ struggle was not only about empowering women. They wanted equal rights for both sexes, not for the tables to turn on the misogynists and for women to wield the whip.
Equal rights extend to men - as in some cases they come off worse. Currently, they only have two days off work when their wives or girlfriends have a child, meaning that they are unable to help care for their new son or daughter when the mother is drained after the birth and in need of a rest.
Spain’s government, mindful of the need for a balance and to release both women and men from their traditional roles in society – or at least offer them a choice – is working on a law that will, over the course of time, bring radical changes to Spanish society.
The Ley de Igualdad, in the draft stage at the moment, wants to smash the glass ceiling and put more women in power.
Girls in the hotseat
Zapatero and his cabinet want to make it obligatory for at least 40 per cent – but no more than 60 per cent - of people working in local governments who are up for election to be female. In the beginning, this will only apply to towns with more than 5,000 inhabitants, although over the course of time the president expects the rule to extend to smaller villages.
Companies will be hit next. A minimum of 40 per cent of those on the board of directors and occupying senior positions should be women, and firms will be given four years to comply. Organisations with more than 250 staff will be affected.
However, the emphasis is on igualdad, or equality, as the title of the law suggests. For this reason, no more than 60 per cent of top bosses in an organisation should be women – essentially, the board must comprise a roughly equal split between the sexes.
Yet no woman wants to be taken on because of her gender alone. She would like to think that her qualifications, experience, ideas and personality gained her the position and that she is not simply making up the numbers. On the other hand, there are plenty of highly-qualified women in menial tasks because of Spain’s continuing unemployment crisis, and because those who are mothers need to find a job where the working hours allow them to look after their children. This is not to say there is no female representation in the upper echelons of companies, though.
Ana Sánchez Trujillo was recently elected to the board of governors of the Banco de España, having been manager of the balance of payments department in the nineties and worked alongside the Central Bank of Europe. Pilar l’Hotellerie-Fallois was a department head in the Bank and has now been named Director of International Affairs.
Isabel Aguilera was made Director General of Dell Computer España in 1998 at just 38 years old after 14 years in IT sales and marketing. She works a 12-hour day – out of necessity, not because she is a workaholic – and in addition to handling complaints and analysing results, she interviewed every new job candidate in her first year when the multi-national increased its staff numbers by 30 per cent. Amongst the successful applicants was a woman who was two months’ pregnant.
She disagrees with fixed quotas of male and female staff, believing that personal qualities are more important irrespective of gender. The number of men on the payroll is double that of women, but Aguilera does not consider this a problem. “Things work out better if they are done spontaneously,” she says.
Not all women want to head up the board-room table, handle multi-million euro international funds and have male filing clerks and tea-boys. Some prefer to stay at home with their children; others are keen to forge a career for themselves but see the wider picture. Life outside of work, family, friends and holidays are equally as important to them and they would never consider sacrificing those for a bigger pay packet or an impressive job title. Higher numbers of men in senior positions may not be a question of discrimination, but of women in general wanting more out of life than their work.
The new legislation is clearly going to be topical and will have to be carefully drawn-up – already, 512 amendments have been made and the opposing right-wing Partido Popular is against a fixed male-female ratio in companies and local government, taking the same line as Isabel Aguilera.
Protecting new mums
Although the Ley de Igualdad covers female staff numbers and equal pay, prevents women from being denied promotion or training on the grounds of gender and toughens controls over sexual harassment in the workplace, it is mainly concerned with pregnant mums and new parents. Sections of the law deal with domestic violence, the right to education and professional training, and issues affecting the elderly and those living in rural areas.
However, it will be new mothers who see the most benefits from the new law. Firstly, whichever parent is the main child-carer will be able to reduce their working hours by between an eighth (effectively, an hour less a day) and half to look after their children. Other dependent relatives also qualify. This is a very welcome move for parents – usually the mother, in Spain - who are unable to enter the job market because of the difficulties in finding part-time hours.
Maternity leave increases by two weeks where the mother gives birth to, fosters or adopts a handicapped child, and by a further two days where this involves more than one child.
Time spent looking after children or immediate family members that involves reducing working hours or giving up work will not affect social security payments – in other words, the government will pay your stamp during this period. This includes the 16 weeks of maternity leave that the mother is entitled to.
Companies may not suspend or terminate a woman’s employment contract whilst she is off on maternity leave, a factor that frightens many women off having a baby.
At present, parents receive no help from the State when they have children, unless they have a minimum of three. Recently, the law changed to allow the provision of 100 euros per month in benefits, plus a further 70 euros per quarter until the child reaches the age of three.
The thought of being potentially hard-pressed is another issue that is affecting Spain’s birth-rate, currently the lowest in Europe at 0.8 children per couple. The average salaried worker earns enough to cover the bills, at a push, and little more – particularly with house prices spiralling out of control. Yet having a child is a huge drain on financial resources at the best of times and many women who would like to have children, or more children, say they are simply unable to afford to.
The Ley de Igualdad goes some way towards alleviating this catch-22 situation. New mothers will receive the equivalent of the minimum wage – 479.10 euros a month (15.97 a day) as long as they have worked legally, or paid their stamp, for 180 days in the seven years before birth or 365 days throughout their adult life.
Mums of 26 years old or less only need to have covered half of that. They should have contributed to the social security system – or worked for an employer who did so on their behalf – for 90 days in the seven years before giving birth or 180 days throughout their lives. For new mothers under 21, there is no need to prove any of the above.
The benefit lasts for 42 ‘natural’ (non-working) days, although clearly there is room for improvement in this part of the legislation. Six weeks of receiving the minimum wage is not enough to persuade potential impoverished women to have children.
Equality in the true sense
Spain’s central government recognises that promoting equality is not simply a question of improving conditions and reinforcing the rights of women – men, too, should be treated equally. They are entitled to the same conditions when caring for children or dependant relatives as women are, and maternity leave can transfer to the father where the mother dies, even if she was not working at the time, without affecting the father’s social security payments.
Currently, men get two days’ paternity leave whether or not they are married to the mother – yet this gives very little time to care for the baby, particularly if the birth involved complications and the mother is hospitalised for several days.
The Ley de Igualdad adds 13 days to the existing two, meaning men will get a total of 15 days (the intention was to allow eight days but this part of the law was later amended). This will rise to four weeks eventually, but the Partido Popular criticised the fact that there was no timescale given or clear plan as to how and when paternity leave would be increased. The PP also complained that 15 days was very little time – and, in fact, even a month was not enough.
Trying times are ahead, as those in charge of putting together the legislation know that their project could dramatically change the lives of everyone living in Spain, male or female, whether or not they have children. If there are any loopholes, mistakes or wrong decisions, it will affect the whole of society. However, the ideas behind the Ley de Igualdad are sound, and highly beneficial – if it works, both men and women will breathe a sigh of relief and Spain’s reputation as a patriarchal society could become a thing of the past.