Italian women hoping for workplace changes, protection vs discrimination

Posted on February 24, 2012

ROME -- Maria Grazia Fera was looking forward to getting back to work after her first child was born. But three months into her maternity leave, her temporary contract as a teacher for the disabled expired and suddenly, her job was gone.

More than two years later, the 31-year-old is still out of work and often passed over by potential employers now she has a small daughter.

Italian women have long complained of discrimination in the workplace, from employers who fail to respect their maternity rights to a patriarchal society that still thinks their primary role is in the home.

Labor reforms touted by the new government of Prime Minister Mario Monti and public disgust at the sex scandals and macho behavior of his predecessor Silvio Berlusconi may finally change all that.

The female employment rate in Italy, at 46%, is the lowest in the European Union after Malta, lagging 68% for Italian men and a 58% average for women in Europe, official data shows.

Italy ranks 74th, below Ghana and Bangladesh, on gender equality, dragged down by its low score for women’s economic participation and opportunity, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2011 Global Gender Gap Report.

As part of measures to boost Italy’s sluggish growth, Mr. Monti has said he wants to shake up a rigid labor system which offers strong protection for some privileged workers while leaving others, commonly women and young people, in precarious, short-term jobs with little labor protection or benefits.

He has introduced a tax incentive scheme to encourage firms to hire women and young people.

To get more women scaling the career ladder, the government is looking at ways to fight illegal, yet widespread, discriminatory practices by Italian businesses. Among the most insidious of these are “white resignations,” whereby employers force new female workers to sign undated resignation letters which they use to fire them immediately if they get pregnant or face long-term illness.

Such discrimination has implications not just for the workplace, but the family and society as a whole.

Italy has one of the lowest fertility rates in Europe, at 1.4 live births per woman, and an average first-time mother’s age of about 30 compared to an average of 27.8 among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Public spending on family benefits in cash, services and tax measures comes to less than 1.5% of gross domestic product (GDP) in Italy compared to more than 3% in France, Sweden and Denmark, according to the OECD.

Increasing the number of women who work to the European Union’s goal of 60% could boost Italy’s GDP by up to 7%, Bank of Italy research shows. -- Reuters