The changing Italian woman

Every girl dreams of travelling to Italy with a vision of Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday- indulging in Italian cuisine, riding a Vespa through the narrow city streets, and perhaps even falling in love.

However, on arriving in Italy one soon becomes aware that this idea of romance is far from reality. Rather, it is men catcalling women on the streets beside the Ponte Vecchio, sounds of wolf-whistling as you stroll past the Duomo Firenze, cars honking, and older men murmuring “Ciao bella, come home with me,” as you go about your day. Hardly Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.  

Florence, Italy

Women in Italy put up with this very public display of macho culture every day. Traditionally, the Italian woman was defined by her familial role as a wife and mother. She was the head of the household- the cook, the cleaner, the caretaker of all things inside the four walls of any Italian home. However, in the last decade, this prevalent role of the Italian woman has begun to change and grow beyond this classic image of marriage and motherhood.

Italy is currently ranked 50 on the Global Gender Index, which conducts its analyses based on levels of political empowerment, educational attainment, health and survival, and women in management positions. While the traditional role of women as a homemaker and a lover is undergoing change, there is a long way to go before this country catches up to the gender equality standards that are the norm in other European countries and the rest of the world.

The Italian government is working towards improving and advancing gender equality and women’s economic empowerment and education.

G7 Summit

Just last week, Italy held the 43rd Group of Seven Summit (G7), where this year Italy holds the Presidency of the G7. The group is a set of nations that functions to facilitate shared macroeconomic initiatives by its members in response to the collapse of the exchange rate back in 1971.

The G7 includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The European Union (EU) is also represented within the G7 but never holds the Presidency or hosts Summits.

Last week at the Summit,world leaders from these nations met to discuss world challenges, focusing on foreign policy, the global economy, the migration crisis, and the reduction of inequalities.

Italian Prime Minister, Paolo Gentiloni made it clear thet gender equality is a top priority.

“We have to give hope and trust back to our fellow citizens by combating poverty, creating common immigration policies, and solving social inequalities.”

Leaders at the G7 adopted the first G7 Roadmap for a Gender-Responsive Economic Environment, which aims to remove barriers to the full economic, political, and social participation of women around the world.

This roadmap will focus on gender gaps in income, disparities of unfair practices due to gender, as well as differences in access to health systems and education.

Women in education

Syracuse University, Florence

Currently, more and more women are choosing to pursue a career by attending university, instead of settling down and having children straight out of high school.

Since 2000, Italy has seen significant increases in women attaining higher education. In fact, the University of Florence now has a 60:40 ratio of female to male students, and this is similar across other universities in Florence and in Italy.

Syracuse University (SU) students Laura Rossi says,”Lots of girls choose to go to university now. It isn’t hard to go to university and is a lot more accessible than it was years ago.”

“Most of my friends that are girls chose to go to university because we want to get a good job in the future, maybe even study or work overseas.”

“My mum could not choose to go to university because she had to be a mother, a lot of women her age, around 50, could not go to university because the priority was on the males.”

Walking through the SU campus, feels like any other university campus. There is no sexism here. At least there is no public display of macho culture as you experience in the city centre.

Unlike in the city centre, behaviour appears vastly different as males and females are treated equally inside the university halls.

It is interesting however that while a majority of the students are female, the majority of teaching staff is male dominated. At the SU, 61.5 per cent of the full-time faculty is male.

“Most of my professors are males. I think I have only had one or two female professors in my studies here,” says Rossi who is now in her third year of studying international business.

Women in the workplace

Despite 60 per cent of new university graduates being female, women still live in a heavily sexist environment preventing them from being offered management roles in businesses, earning equal wages, and even losing maternity benefits.

Men heavily outweigh women in high profile positions, whether in private corporations, the education system, or the political sphere. While this is the case across other countries in Europe too, the number of women in top jobs in Italy is considerably low. Just four per cent of CEOs are women, less than 10 per cent of executives are women and only 16 per cent of middle-top management positions are women.

Doctor Sara-Matthews Grieco, Professor of History and Coordinator of Women’s and Gender Studies at the SU in Florence says, “There is still a glass ceiling that exists for women in businesses.”

Doctor Sara Matthews-Grieco

Doctor Matthews-Grieco explains that it is “more difficult for women to be heard,” and that “a woman’s voice still weighs half as much as a male’s.”

She explained that even in education, gender equality and the role of women is often overlooked, saying “women’s studies and female issues are still low key and often named history of the family or something less specific to gender.”

The employment rate for women in Italy sits at 52 per cent, compared to men at 72 per cent, meaning Italy has one of the biggest gender gap’s in the EU. The Eu average employment rate for women is 67 per cent.

The gender pay gap is also sitting well below the EU average (16.4 %) at 6.7 per cent, meaning women are earning about 3000 Euros a year less than men. This is despite the fact that men and women often complete the same tasks, under the same contract, with the same tertiary qualifications, even being the same age. In many cases, they could be working alongside each other, with the only difference being gender.

Some attribute this to women having to maintain the ‘house job’ as well as working to make an income.

“Women are still the ones expected to do the cooking, the cleaning, take care of the children, and then they are trying to make a career as well. It isn’t easy,” says Doctor Matthews-Grieco.

Maternity leave for women in the workforce

Motherhood is a highly esteemed role in traditional Italian families, viewed as an expected rite of passage that transforms girls into women. In more recent times however, becoming a mother is more of a choice and responsibility that women consciously decide to implement.

However, another barrier women face while trying to advance within the workplace is childbirth. The birth of a baby means enormous changes in both family and working life, including maternity leave,part-time jobs, and costs for child-care.

While Italian law recognises the importance of maternity protection and guarantees paid maternity leave, employers often avoid hiring mothers-to-be or find ways around paying maternity leave. This is illegal in most European countries including Italy because it is seen as a highly discriminatory practice.

Mothers and children, Florence Italy

“If you are a woman, a lot of workplaces ask you if you want a child, before deciding to accept you for a job because they don’t want to pay you during pregnancy,” says Rossi. “In Italy a lot of women are ‘just’ mums, they don’t work. I think it is difficult to have the opportunity to focus on work if you want a family too.”

Doctor Matthews-Grieco shed light on a friend whose employer told her, “You don’t need a proper salary because you have a husband.”

“Later that husband left her and her children for a younger woman. She went from one salary to no salary and well, the family evaporated.”

“On any level, this is something that needs changing in Italy. It is changing, but these changes are not visible enough.”

Moves for change

While there are policies in place both in the Italian government and the EU, Italy still exhibits a very male-dominated culture.

Gender equality is a topic central to all societies and must be discussed on a global scale. In order for change to occur, all countries and societies must work together to achieve this mutually beneficial goal.

The G7 has proposed the following goals towards attaining gender equality and advancing women’s empowerment and education:

  • Increasing women’s participating and promoting opportunities and fair selection processes for leadership at all levels of decision-making
  • Strengthening the foundation of women’s access to decent and quality jobs

Women in Italy deserve access to equal opportunities as demonstrated in other countries. Currently, women in Italy have the agency and ability to make their own life choices in ways that previous generations could not.

There is still consistent progress to be made in terms of policy reform and engaging with society to bring about perceptual change before women possess the same rights and empowerment as men.

The implementation of the new Roadmap for a Gender-Responsive Economic Environment will allow for an optimistic outlook for gender equality in the future.

Dancer, Italy