Helena Dalli: A lifelong mission to achieve equality for all
Helena Dalli is the first European Commissioner for Equality. She was appointed to the post after a longstanding career in politics in Malta, both as a parliamentarian and a minister of portfolios including industrial relations, equality and social dialogue.
Entering politics at a young age, Helena Dalli was driven by a desire to contest inequalities and discrimination. She was just 16 when a senior politician asked her a provocative question: Instead of just complaining about inequalities, what did she intend to do about them?
From that moment, there was no holding her back.
“Addressing inequalities and discrimination became my life mission,” she says. From the youth movement of her political party in Malta, she moved up the ranks with determination, knowing that she had to attain a certain level of experience and clout to successfully push for change.
"Addressing inequalities and discrimination became my life mission.”
— Helena Dalli
Her position today, as the first Commissioner for Equality for the European Commission, is a pinnacle of sorts. “Working at this level, I have a larger reach – from national politics to European politics, making a difference for all people,” she notes.
It is a place to realize her expansive vision: “We must work for an equal world, we must embrace all diversity, we must help people to reach their full potential. What a better world it would be if every person could live and learn and work and use all that they have. We will all gain from this human capital, if we eliminate discrimination and concentrate our endeavors towards a fair and equal world.”
“We must work for an equal world, we must embrace all diversity, we must help people to reach their full potential. What a better world it would be if every person could live and learn and work and use all that they have."
— Helena Dalli
Such aspirations have never been more important than in the time of COVID-19. “While the impact of the virus is unprecedented for everyone,” she says, “the consequences of the virus and the pandemic disproportionately affect certain groups more than others, women included.”
Struggling to balance work and family
Dr Dalli has always taken her work seriously. Early in her career, she wondered why there was such a need for adopting quotas to help women move into leadership roles. She assumed that working hard would be enough. When she was first elected to Parliament, it was from a district that since 1947 has always elected a woman parliamentarian. “The culture there has been that it is okay for a woman to represent us in parliament,” she says.
But when she started out, she didn’t take into account the challenges of getting married and having children, especially three decades ago when there was even less support for work-life balance than now. “If my mother wasn’t available to help me with the work I had to do within the family, probably the difficulties would have been much more,” she remembers.
I understood what needed to happen to reduce burdens for young women starting a family and a career in public life.”
Because of her perseverance, Dr Dalli made it through and has gone on to use her experiences in politics to advance childcare regulations for government institutions and private businesses. “It was hard when my kids were babies, but I think I was well placed in making policies or legislation. I understood what needed to happen to reduce burdens for young women starting a family and a career in public life.”
She is not surprised that for many women, the struggle to balance work and family still ends up with the choice of leaving the workforce. In Malta, when free childcare for working parents and parents in school was introduced, the share of women in the labour market rose exponentially.
“Countries and governments must seriously address these social realities, and not just say ‘We are investing in women’s education and training, but we are not getting the return we should be getting’,” she stresses. “Countries are not getting that return because many women have restrictions to entering or staying in the world of work and thus countries are losing a big proportion of talent and skills.”
The disparity has emerged even more sharply during the pandemic, with people confined at home, and the burden of unpaid care work increasing exponentially. “Care work is work,” Dr Dalli states emphatically. “In the family it needs to be shared, while in society it needs to be recognized and adequately compensated. Equal sharing should be the norm, supported by affordable and high-quality care services.”
"Care work is work. In the family it needs to be shared, while in society it needs to be recognized and adequately compensated. Equal sharing should be the norm, supported by affordable and high-quality care services.”
— Helena Dalli
Setting new standards
From the vantage point of many years of experience, Dr Dalli believes in people embodying the change they want to see, even if it means barging through the door of the men’s club that is politics. “We can only change it by going to the club,” she contends. “I know it’s difficult, and we try to make it easier, such as with work-life balance policies, but women must come forward.”
One of her proudest accomplishments in Malta was establishing the most progressive LGBTIQ legislation in Europe. Developing the legislation also set new standards for inclusive consultation, with government working hand in hand with NGO activists.
She made similar strides at the European Commission, leading to the adoption of its first LGBTIQ strategy as well as the Gender Equality Strategy and the strategic framework on Roma equality, inclusion and participation in 2020. Currently she concluded work on a new strategy for persons with disabilities. All of these plans have one aim: concrete results. “The change must be felt by our citizens, so they have better lives,” she notes.
As a Commissioner, Dr Dalli was also instrumental in establishing the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, which the United Nations now commemorates each year on 11 February. The idea emerged from her commitment to combatting stereotypes, which continue to restrict women and girls from studying science or working in related fields.
She hopes to see more women move into leadership positions in science, where they can serve as encouraging role models for girls. She also stresses that while legislation is a foundation for greater equality, changing mindsets sustains progress over time, a process unfolding on many levels.
“I used to love fairy tales as a child, but they don’t tell you much about life,” she reflects. “But now I see 4-year-old girls being presented with Marie Curie and women astronauts. I think that is very good. They can aspire to be scientists and astronauts, not queens and princesses!”
We are all increasingly aware that this pandemic has highlighted many issues which need to be tackled.”
From crisis, a chance to catalyse change
Dr Dalli is fully aware of the immense costs of the COVID-19 crisis, which will likely continue long into the future. As the world is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action through the Generation Equality Forum, a series of Action Coalitions have formed, including one co-led by the European Commission on gender-based violence. Rates have skyrocketed in many countries during lockdowns imposed to respond to the pandemic.
Dr Dalli sits at the helm of the coalition, and at the 2020 session of the UN General Assembly, she joined other coalition co-leaders to urge attention to gender-based violence as “a women’s human rights violation of pandemic proportions which was prevalent before the COVID-19 crisis.” They went on to underscore that without a high level of action and ambition, gender-based violence “will persist once this crisis has passed, with serious consequences and life-threatening impacts for women and girls around the world who will pay the highest price.”
Participation of women in all decision-making is an important pre-condition for gender-sensitive policies.”
On this and other issues, Dr Dalli sees the pandemic as an opportunity to catalyze change. Proof comes from history, she explains, describing how women streamed into jobs previously held only by men after the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. “We are all increasingly aware that this pandemic has highlighted many issues which need to be tackled,” she says, noting gaps in reproductive health care, among others.
Dr Dalli has successfully backed EU policy guidance urging countries to adopt gender-sensitive recovery packages that cover such issues. She also remains determined to call for equal numbers of women in leadership and decision-making roles, in public health and everywhere else, even if this is realistically a long-term goal. “Participation of women in all decision-making is an important pre-condition for gender-sensitive policies,” she stresses.
If she could change one thing above everything else, it would be equality for everyone — her goal in the beginning and one that remains to this day.
"We are born equal, we die equal,” she says. “In between, I want equality for all.”
"We are born equal, we die equal. In between, I want equality for all.”
— Helena Dalli
Listen to the Generations Talk Gender podcast to hear more from Helena Dalli.
Let’s reimagine our world. Equality everywhere. How? Generation Equality has the answers! For the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, we asked 25 women to probe still hidden issues and share inspiring ideas on getting transformation going, for good.