Why are there so few women in Italy’s most powerful jobs?

When the Italian government sat down with heads of industry to discuss the budget this week, there was something noticeably missing from the picture: women.

Why are there so few women in Italy’s most powerful jobs?
Italy ranks poorly for gender equality and things are getting worse. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP.

Photos of the high-powered meetings published by Repubblica show a sea of ties, with rows of male politicians and male business leaders on either side of the table.

The difficult task of spotting the females among them is like playing a depressing version of Where’s Wally. At first glance there seem to be none.

At the first meeting, called by Labour Minister Luigi Di Maio, there were no women present on the government’s side and only two women among the 36 heads of industry.

At a second meeting called by Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, the picture was almost the same except – spot the difference – there was only one woman in the room this time.

The pictures sum up the sad state of gender equality in Italian politics, business, and society.

Just 17 percent of the current government is female. There are five female ministers in the cabinet of 18, and only 14 percent of Italian mayors are women. 

The number of female prime ministers or presidents in Italy past or present, meanwhile, is a big fat zero.

The current Italian government cabinet. Only 17% of Italy's top government posts are taken by women. Photo: Andreas Solar/AFP

And these pitiful figures are not an improvement.

The previous government was 31 percent female, meaning that this administration has taken a big step backwards.

And a study last year showed a decline in the number of women taking top roles in Italian government, as well as a drop in wage equality, with figures from before this government took office.

In business, it took the passing of a law to improve things. Since 2012, listed companies have been required to have at least 33 percent female board members. Today the percentage of female board members at Italy's top companies is 34 percent, says Istat.

But few of them, it seems, are in real positions of power. Only seven out of 100 Italian companies have a female head – although that is a threefold increase since 2013, when female Italian company directors were almost unheard of.

So why are things still this bad in 2018?

Many Italian women say that pursuing a demanding, high-powered career is just not a realistic option.

With little support available, many face a choice between career and family

Donatella Prampolini, vice president of Confcommercio and one of the two women present as Di Maio's meeting, told Repubblica that too often women give up their careers before reaching the top.

READ ALSO: Italy's gender gap is getting a whole lot worse

“We're still surprised to see women at the top,” she says, “We still need exceptional personal situations to get there; for example I could count on my husband and parents to raise my three children. Without them, I would not have been at that table.”

“It’s an unacceptable situation,” she says, and blames “the lack of services, the lack of welfare, and the dominant culture” in Italy.

Successive governments have failed to prioritise these issues, and the current government doesn't seem to be changing that trend.

Instead, a bill proposed by conservative senator Simone Pillon, of the right-wing League, risks turning the clock back 50 years for women, children and survivors of domestic abuse, as it aims to change the rules on the separation of couples and the custody of children.

People in Rome protest the so-called Pillon bill on divorce and custody rights. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

Meanwhile, policy providing affordable childcare and shared parental leave has been sidelined, meaning many young Italian women are either putting careers on hold to have children, or putting off starting a family because they just can’t afford it.

And pressure from society plays no small part in the decisions women make.

Sophia is a 31-year-old business graduate living in Siena who just had her first child. “Everyone in my family just expected me to give up my job when I found out I was pregnant,” she tells me.

“And it was clear that my husband wasn’t going to give up his. No one expected him to stop working. Besides, he makes more money and has a higher position in his company,” she explains.

As Italy’s birth rate plummets, the government has launched misguided policies such as that of offering people a free piece of farmland for having a third child, though the root cause of the problem has not been tackled.

Sophia says she thought she’d “probably get made redundant anyway” once her boss found out she was pregnant.

Her claim is not really as shocking as it sounds; among those in work, one in four Italian women loses her job within a year of giving birth, according to Istat – and the risk increases with each child.

Unlike some other European countries, Italy doesn't have comprehensive child benefit schemes.

Only 40 percent of Italy's workforce is female, one of the lowest rates of any developed country in the world.

Women have more equality in Mexico, Kazakhstan, Zimbabwe or Bangladesh than in Italy, according to the World Economic Forum's 2017 report on the global gender gap.

Out of 144 countries, Italy ranks 82nd for equal opportunities at work and in politics, education and health.

Italy lags far behind its Northern European neighbours, who lead the index globally.

In a society with such deep and widespread gender inequality, the lack of women – and lack of interest in issues holding them back – at the top of government comes as no surprise. It's a self-perpetuating system, and it needs to be interrupted



Italy’s government proposes bill to make surrogacy a ‘universal crime’

Italy’s parliament is set to debate a bill that would expand criminal penalties for the use of surrogacy, in what opponents say is part of a broader attack on gay rights by the country’s hard-right government.

Italy's government proposes bill to make surrogacy a 'universal crime'

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni is lead signatory on the new bill, which would make surrogacy – already a crime in Italy – a criminal act for Italians who make use of the practice anywhere in the world.

The motion combines previous draft laws from the ruling Brothers of Italy, Forza Italia and League parties, and will be debated in the lower house from Wednesday, according to news agency Ansa.

The move comes days after the government ordered the city of Milan to stop issuing birth certificates to the children of same-sex couples on the grounds that the practice violates Italian law.

READ ALSO: Milan stops recognising children born to same-sex couples

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has long been outspoken against surrogacy, which she has described as “a commodification of women’s bodies and of human life.”

In a heated parliamentary debate on the rights of same sex couples on Monday, her Brothers of Italy colleague Federico Mollicone, chair of the lower house’s Culture Committee, said surrogacy was “more serious than paedophilia.”

Similar comments were made in 2017 by a minister of the now-defunct New Centre Right party, who likened entering into a surrogacy arrangement to committing a sex crime.

READ ALSO: ‘Surrogacy is like a sex crime’: Italy minister

In early 2022, as leader of the Brothers of Italy party in opposition to Mario Draghi’s coalition government, Meloni put forward the same motion to make surrogacy a “universal crime”.

The text was adopted by the Justice Committee of the former legislature – a preliminary step before it can be debated in the lower house – last April, but did not go further at the time.

The crime of surrogacy in Italy is currently punishable with a prison sentence of over three years or a fine of between 600,000 and one million euros; penalties that the government is proposing to extend to all Italian citizens who engage in the practice, regardless of where it occurs.

Whether such a law would even be possible to pass or enforce is unclear, and legal experts have dismissed it as impractical. 

“There are no conditions that would justify an expansion of penal intervention of this type,” Marco Pelissero, a professor of criminal law at the University of Turin, told L’Espresso newspaper.

The idea of a universal crime “does not even exist in the legal language,” he said.

But the proposal has aroused fears that, if passed, the law could result in large numbers of same-sex parents whose children were born via surrogates being sent to prison.

“With this law we would be exposing families with young children to criminal law, quite simply criminalising procreative choices made abroad in countries where these practices are regulated,” Angelo Schillaci, a professor of Comparative Public Law at La Sapienza University, told the news site Fanpage.

‘We are aware of how hard this government is working to strip even the most basic rights from same-sex-parent families,” Alessia Crocini, head of the Rainbow Families organisation, said last week when it was first announced that Milan had been banned from registering the children of gay couples.

The move resulted in large-scale protests across the city on Saturday, and Milan Mayor Beppe Sala has pledged to fight the change.

“It is an obvious step backwards from a political and social point of view,” he said in a recent podcast interview.

On Tuesday, European Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders commented that European Union member states are required by EU law to recognise the children of same-sex couples.

“In line with the LGBTIQ equality strategy for 2020-2025, the Commission is in continuous dialogue with Member States regarding the implementation of the judgments of the Court of Justice of the European Union.”

“This also includes the obligation for Member States to recognise” children “of same-sex parents, for the purpose of exercising the rights conferred by the EU”, Reynders reportedly said in response to question about the developments in Milan.