Laura Taddeo, a master’s degree holder in tourism who speaks fluent English, Spanish, and Arabic, was one of hundreds of thousands of women in Italy who lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic.
Her contract with a high-end Italian hotel company as a tour operator expired in May, just as COVID-19 travel restrictions were crippling tourism, and it was not renewed. However, once tourism recovers, Taddeo, who exudes confidence, will be ready for the work interview questions.
“It isn’t a question of, ‘What have you studied?’ What languages are you fluent in?’ ‘However, do you have a family?’ Do you want to start a family?”’ Taddeo, 33, claims that every man who has interviewed her has asked her that question right away.
Working women have paid a high price around the world as a result of the pandemic, with many quitting jobs to care for children as schools closed or seeing jobs disappear in hard-hit retail and hospitality industries. However, Italian women had been struggling for decades to increase their participation in the workforce when the COVID-19 crisis hit.
In terms of women’s participation in the workforce, Italy ranks second to last among the 27 European Union countries, only ahead of Greece. When Europe’s economy was suffering from pandemic restrictions in 2020, 49.4% of women aged 15 to 64 worked in Italy, compared to 67.3 percent in the EU. In contrast, 67.3 percent of men had work, compared to 79 percent in the EU.
The lag can be clarified by deeply ingrained Italian cultural attitudes that hold a woman’s primary vocation to be at home.
“It’s not that women shouldn’t work; it’s that they shouldn’t neglect their homes. The widespread behaviors, according to sociologist Chiara Saraceno, are “women’s duty.” Daycare, both public and private, is notoriously difficult to come by.
Women kept 249,000 of the 456,000 jobs lost in 2020 in Italy, where the pandemic first exploded in the West, with many of them serving as waitresses, shop clerks, nannies, and elderly caretakers. According to ISTAT, a whopping 99,000 of the 101,000 jobs that disappeared between November and December, when Italy was struggling with a devastating resurgence of infections, were women’s jobs, mainly among the self-employed.
And before the pandemic, Italy’s economy had never completely recovered from a decade-long economic recession. According to the Bank of Italy, raising the proportion of women in the workforce to 60% will raise GDP by 7 percentage points.
In an interview with the weekly Io Donna last month, ISTAT’s central director Linda Laura Sabbadini said, “We’re talking about women who are more trained than men, but who our country fails to hire” (I, Woman). “The argument is that Italy will not flourish as long as women are underutilized in terms of their potential.”
Mario Draghi, who led both the Bank of Italy and the European Central Bank before becoming the country’s prime minister last month, is well aware of the issue.
A significant portion of the 209 billion euros ($250 billion) in EU pandemic funding for Italy will be allocated to digital innovation and the transition to environmentally sustainable technologies. Draghi said Italy would invest “economically, but above all, culturally” so that young women can prepare for careers in sectors that will benefit from the new investment when he set out his goals to Parliament last month.
Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees are earned by 37 percent of Italian men and 16 percent of women.
Some fear that EU funding would exacerbate the gender divide.
“There is a significant chance that it will result in more employment for men,” said Saraceno, a sociologist based in Turin. “For a long time, I’ve been saying that you need to train both sexes for this type of work.”
The push for women in software and engineering jobs, according to Daniela Magnanti, 42, comes too late for her. She worked as a computer programmer for years before her company went bankrupt. Magnanti described how, as she tried to return to work after the birth of her second daughter, parenthood hurt her prospects in a phone interview from her home in a Rome suburb.
“Asking if she had a child was a standard query for recruiters. (And) the (recruiter) was always a man.”
Magnanti now works part-time at a hotel’s check-in desk and does administrative work for her brother’s plumbing company in a nearby beach town.
“In the 1960s and 1970s, it was justified by saying they weren’t trained, they didn’t have the competence,” said Liliana Ocmin, who coordinates the CISL trade union group’s efforts for women. However, even after obtaining college degrees and skills, Italian women remained behind in the workforce.
Last year, ISTAT’s Sabbadini noted that day-care availability nationally was just 25%. It was a meager 9% in southern Calabria.
Draghi seems to have received the letter. He said Italy required “profound changes” to close the gender gap, including more equal access to day-care, in remarks to the nation on Monday, International Women’s Day.
Meanwhile, for Carmen Basso, 63, Italian cultural attitudes about working women seem to be caught in a time warp.
One of her daughters works as a lawyer, while the other works as a psychologist. When she encounters new people, though, the first thing they ask her about her daughters is, “Are they married?”
“If they were men, they’d inquire, ‘What do your kids do?’” Basso, who lives near Venice, said.
Anita Galafate, who started a wedding planning company 15 years ago when she was 23 and newly married, is one of those affected financially by the pandemic.
She used to do 25 weddings a year before her 3-year-old twin sons were born, but now she just does 15. She had two bookings during the pandemic.
“As far as my children are concerned, I don’t want them to see a mother who sits at home. I want them to feel that working is perfectly appropriate when they have a potential wife or companion,” Galafate said. “I’ll find another career even though the pandemic costs me this one.”