Italy’s ‘female question’

Published Feb 01, 2013 10:01pm

ENZA Miceli received a call [in December] from her children’s school asking her to come in for an appointment. Her husband was abroad. So Miceli, 44, a call centre worker, asked her supervisor if, just this once, she could slip out for two hours. “She said to me: ‘Well, you need to choose between your work and your family. If you choose your family, you will never succeed at work.’” Miceli chose her family and quit.

With a female employment rate of 46.5 per cent — the third lowest in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), better only than Greece, Mexico and Turkey, and 12 percentage points lower than the EU average — Italy has a problem getting its women into work and keeping them there.

“Italy is not using to the best of its ability a significant part of its human capital — women. It is a colossal loss for our economy,” wrote Alberto Alesina and Francesco Giavazzi, two leading economists, on the front page of Corriere della Sera last month. “The next government will have to put the question of female employment at the heart of its programme.”

For many who watched with horror and incredulity as Silvio Berlusconi spent years combining the job of prime minister with sexist buffoon, such a move would be refreshing. But they say that this element of his legacy, which drew on Italy’s traditional gender roles and pushed them to grotesque extremes in the form of “bunga bunga” soirees and barely clad television showgirls, will be difficult to overcome.

When it comes to female unemployment, observers agree that tackling the cultural roots of the problem is crucial. In Italy, particularly in the south, the female population is still expected to be “the ultimate caregiver”.

Maddalena Vianello, a researcher and feminist activist, believes a “revolution of mentality” is needed to redistribute the burden of unpaid domestic work, be it housework, childcare or looking after the elderly. That may take some time. According to figures published in 2011 by the OECD, Italian women spent three hours 40 minutes more per day on unpaid work than their male counterparts.

Defenders of the status quo argue that women, in performing the role of what the Italians call the “angel of the hearth”, are performing a hugely valuable function.

But Giavazzi, a professor of economics at Bocconi University in Milan, does not agree. “It’s very inefficient because you have people with good university degrees who could be very productive on the market and instead work at home,” he said.

If women manage to find work in Italy — in a country where the unemployment rate is 11 per cent — their experiences can be discouraging. Families who cannot rely on relatives to look after children — a common strategy among working-age Italians — will have to find childcare, the public provision of which in southern Italy is patchy and often over-subscribed.

What can the next government do to fix this problem? For many, the answer is clear: better public services that will allow women greater freedom by providing more care for preschool children and elderly people. Others, such as Giavazzi, advocate easing the tax burden to boost women’s pay. — The Guardian, London

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