31 May 2006

The Web
Business Today

Bridging a 20 year gap

ROSEANNE GALEA may not be a household name but she juggles three private businesses, her family and also heads the Association for Women in Business.
It is not customary to make reference to a businessman’s family when being interviewed but Galea acknowledges that culturally the family is still a woman’s domain and so it is only natural that any talk about business will also have to focus on family management.
She argues that there are still cultural mind sets that put a lot of strain on women who run their own businesses. Women are constantly hounded by that guilt feeling of having abandoned their children, she says.
And when comparing to Italian counterparts, Galea insists, Maltese women are still some 20 years back.
She laments the lack of support structures that hamper women from entering the labour market, more so women who want to open a new business. Although Galea wants to see government grants and subsidies to encourage business organisations to introduce flexi-time and provide affordable child care facilities, she says an educational approach to change the general cultural mind set is more advisable.
In a country with scarce resources, she says, it is a problem to have half of the available human resources unable to contribute productively.

What are the major difficulties that your association foresees for the entry of more women in the labour market and also for increased participation at an entrepreneurial level?
The biggest problem is culture. We have a lot of women who want to open up their own business but their partners or immediate family do not believe in their ability to run a business. The family members start creating all sorts of stumbling blocks.
This is a cultural attitude that can only be countered by exposing in public the stories of women who have managed to run their own business successfully.
Statistically it is also evident that women earn less than men even if they are employed at the same level. For a woman to take home the same pay packet as her male counterpart she needs to be more qualified, work longer hours and constantly prove she is up to the job. This is an unfair situation, also as a result of our cultural attitudes.

How do you transcend these cultural barriers?
It is important that we educate people on the importance of women’s participation in the labour market and the results that can be achieved. Unless people are exposed to successful women they will continue to question the need for more women to join the labour market.
But there also needs to be more support structures for women such as child care facilities. And it is not just the under-three-year-old childcare facilities that we are talking about but also after-school facilities. What does a parent do when children finish school if the grandparents are still working or are unable to take care of the children?
Unless you employ a nanny, which costs a lot of money, there are no alternatives.

We’ve been hearing a lot about the need for child care facilities for almost a decade, yet little has been done to address the situation. Is the root of the problem a financial one or is it also a cultural blockage?
The problem is that when the proposals were made to government, a task force was set up which did not include business people. It was almost entirely composed of government personnel. The task force had to have all the stakeholders represented; mothers, the operators, the child carers and government officials.
The task force had eventually made a number of proposals that led to the writing of a white paper that has remained a white paper to this day. In the meantime the ETC came out with its own EU-funded scheme for employers to create their own child care centres for their employees.
What happened? Most employers got stuck at MEPA stage because the authority had no guidelines to follow since the white paper was not yet law.
It is a vicious circle with the system getting stuck because things are not in place.

Do you believe there is the political will to solve this problem?
I hope there is but we need to push it. There should be the political will because it would be a stupid government not to realise that in a country with scarce resources it is a problem to have half of the available human resources unable to contribute productively.
It is a question of lack of co-ordination more than a lack of political will.

A couple of weeks ago UHM secretary general Gejtu Vella said in an interview with this newspaper that one of the problems that hampers more women to join or remain in the labour market is the resistance of most employers to new concepts such as flexi-time. You are also an employer. Why this resistance among employers to new concepts?
A number of years back I had set up a child care centre in Floriana. We had conducted a survey among businesses in the Floriana and Valletta area to assess whether they would avail themselves of child care facilities for their employees. The absolute response was that unless it was compulsory to support a child care centre businesses were not interested.
People in business think about pounds, shillings and pence. As an entrepreneur, if I had a person who is very good and I cannot do without her services and she needs child care facilities, I would be ready to provide her with support. But if people who require child care can easily be replaced by men or women without children then an entrepreneur will most likely go for the second option which is a cheaper one.
Entrepreneurs have to face so many expenses that profits are being squeezed and it is obvious that given the choice they would go for a cheaper or no cost option.
We need to adopt a number of measures ranging from the provision of child care facilities to flexi-time and job-sharing. These would help more women enter the work place.

But are businesses ready to go for flexi-time in an environment heavily conditioned by the bottom line?
This is the culture we need to change.

Is it just a question of culture or is it one intrinsically linked to cost, which given a choice businesses would simply ignore?
If the supply of labour exists, a business organisation can do without flexi-time. It is obvious that if a person can be replaced without having to change all work schedules, an entrepreneur would go for this option. In the labour market it is all a question of demand and supply. But I also find that some women do not try to help themselves.

Given that businesses would go for the cheaper option, are you advocating that the state should intervene, because it seems that women will always remain disadvantaged?
Not imposition but education and a change in culture. We don’t need to go for strict regulation at this stage. I would prefer to educate to show that it makes sense to introduce flexi-time.

But education is a long-drawn process; it will take years to change things…
Yes, it is a lengthy process but it can be supported by real government grants and subsidies to encourage change in the shorter term. But schemes need to be real and effective.

What do you mean when you say that some women do not help themselves?
I personally know of cases where women insist that they only want to work mornings. As an employer I cannot accede to such demands because it would be very difficult for me to find someone who would work afternoons only.
It takes two to tango. As an employer I am willing to be flexible but the employee needs to be flexible as well. There are women who do not help themselves because of their rigid way of looking at things.

Isn’t this also a question of culture and the way we are accustomed to raising our children?
It is cultural but it is also a generally held notion that we take our job fore granted. How can we take our jobs fore granted? If my business loses customers, and in today’s highly competitive world it is easy to lose clients, we will all suffer. There is this general laissez-affair attitude in the way we do business and it is not just something related to women.

Is access to finance a widespread problem for women who want to invest in their own business?
The problem is far less than what it used to be up to 10 years ago. When I started my business back in 1991, I simply could not take out a bank loan. I had to go to the bank with my husband and the bank manager simply addressed my husband for a loan that I required. I was 25 and just married and that meant I had zero relevance for the bank.
Eventually I had to take out a loan on my husband’s name.
Today, the situation has changed. Both men and women can go to the bank and if the business plan makes sense, the bank would issue a loan. That you need some form of finance as a security is also a fact since the bank won’t issue a loan if you start from zero.
The handicap occurs if the husband does not believe in his wife’s abilities and refuses to sign up for the loan. What happens most often is that the husband raises all sorts of questions and declines to sign. It has nothing to do with access to finance.
If the situation is reversed, a housewife normally just signs up to a loan with no questions asked. She simply follows her husband’s instructions. This is a cultural attitude that needs to change.

How has the business environment changed over the last decade?
Change has been incredible. It is difficult to describe but I like to divide the period into pre- and post-Price Club.
In 1991, before the Price Club crash we used to give longer credit terms to clients. As long as they bought a service it did not matter when they paid. The economic wheel used to spin much more because people did not feel pressured to pay up immediately. But in the post-Price Club era all businesses became more conscious of clients’ financial positions, analysing risk and sticking to shorter credit terms.
In the post-Price Club era, apart from businesses becoming wary of whom their clients are, people also became more wary of what they bought because payment was immediate.
There was also the phenomenon of increased competition in all sectors. Just pick up the Yellow Pages and see the influx of businesses in each and every sector of the economy.
In insurance broking, one of the business lines I am involved in, there are 23 brokers in all of Malta. Denmark has 13 brokers operating in a much bigger market. This is the extent of competition.

How have businesses responded to these changes?
There were some that seized to operate because of the tough competition. But Maltese businesspersons are good at adapting to change because we are generally very close to the consumer. The shop owner sits behind his counter tending to clients’ needs. He or she knows what shoppers expect and want. I personally talk to students attending courses here every day. This helps a lot.

Is it a question of our small size working in our favour for once?
Yes. I am sure that some of the best businesspersons can be found in Malta. Doing well in such a small place with such a small market is unbelievable. We’ve had a lot of innovative people who used change to their advantage.
But being a woman in all this cut throat competition puts you at a disadvantage.

Customers are demanding. The family is still the woman’s domain. Apart from managing the business a woman would have to also manage the family. Women are constantly struggling with a guilt feeling; if we are at work we feel guilty because we are not with our children and if we’re on leave we feel guilty of abandoning our business.
It is a permanent feeling women constantly have to juggle with. For some strange reason, men don’t seem to be concerned about their family commitments when they are at work.

Is it fair for women to have to endure this guilt feeling?
It is not a question of being fair, rather a question of culture. I have the most supportive husband you can imagine but it is assumed that I have to pick up the children from school. He only picks them up when I can’t make it. This is a cultural thing and it is the same with all women in the association.

How do you, Maltese women in business, compare with your European counterparts?
I was in Como for a conference recently and when we compared the situation in Malta with that in Italy it emerged that there is a 20 year gap between us.

It’s a very long road ahead…
It is tough, very tough. I arrived at the conference exhausted; first I had to settle down the office and then the family and all the commitments the children had. I arrived in Italy tired. On the other hand, the Italian women are all cool, calm and relaxed. It is unbelievable. And they do make big money. Italian women are not ones to be disheartened and they do export a lot. We had an Italian business woman with us last week in Malta and she has only been in business for 10 years but she already owns three offices in Italy, an office in Brussels and she recently opened an office in China. I admire these successful women.

Roseanne Galea was
interviewed by Kurt Sansone

Business Today is published weekly on Wednesdays.
Website is updated weekly on Thursdays
Copyright © MediaToday., Malta
Editor: Kurt Sansone
Business Today, MediaToday, Vjal ir-Rihan, San Gwann
Tel: (356) 2138 2741 | Fax: (356) 2138 5075 | E-mail