Whether through new nurseries or bridging the gender pay gap, many Italian women hope a post-pandemic recovery plan will tackle entrenched inequality in the labour market, especially in the poorer south.
Italy was the first European country hit by coronavirus and is one of the main beneficiaries of a 750-billion-euro EU fund intended to help the bloc get back on its feet.
“The recovery plan is a historic opportunity,” said Daniela Poggio, a founding member of the movements #DateciVoce (Give us a voice) and #GiustoMezzo (Right half).
“We should use part of the funds to close the gap between men and women, and to design a fairer country,” she told AFP.
Poggio is global communications director of pharmaceuticals group Angelini Pharma, and before that worked for Sanofi in Italy.
She says she feels “lucky” because she can rely on her parents to look after her children while she focuses on a career, while still being around for her family.
But for many Italian women, working is a challenge due to the scarcity of nursery places, often possible only if they can ask grandparents to pick-up small children, who often finish school at lunchtime.
“The last time we spoke about social infrastructure (such as nurseries and elderly care) in this country was in the beginning of the 2000s,” commented Linda Laura Sabbadini, central director of Italy’s national statistics institute, Istat.
Italy “has never invested in this area, never. Our country has a ridiculous level of social spending compared to Germany”, she said, highlighting particularly the problem of early childhood education services.
Only 25.7 percent of Italian children under the age of three attend some form of creche or nursery school, compared to a European average of 35.1 percent, and 50 percent in France and Spain.
Southern Italy is particularly badly served, with creches available for only 2.2 percent of children under two in Calabria, the poorest region.
While the reasons for this are complex, the result is clear — just 48.1 percent of Italian women were in work in the second quarter of 2020.
This falls short of the EU average of 61.7 percent — and well behind Iceland (76.4 percent), Sweden (73.2 percent), Germany (73.1 percent) or France (61.7 percent), according to Eurostat.
At the same time, Italy is down in 125th place out of 153 in terms of parity of wages, according to the World Economic Forum.
Poggio says it does not start out like that, “but the split grows over the course of their careers, as they are punished for motherhood, and also because women do not ask for pay increases in the same way as men.”
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s government said in September that it would make gender parity one of its “priorities” in the recovery plan.
Campaigners say the task is urgent as women have been worse hit by the economic crisis, occupying 55.9 percent of the lost jobs.
There is also the ever-present issue of Italy’s low birth rate. Already at a 150-year low last year, Istat predicts it will fall significantly this year due to the pandemic.
The government’s options include tax reductions for working women, a single payment for every dependant child and the development of early childhood services, particularly in the south.
Barely 30 percent of women in Sicily work, putting it second last in a league table of 277 European regions, according to the Svimez institute.
But according to #GiustoMezzo, the money announced so far is insufficient, with, for example, new funds for creches delayed until 2022.
Changing attitudes is also important. The group wants three months obligatory paternity leave — up from seven days right now — to persuade parents to share child-rearing.
Campaigners also want more women at the top table, to decide what reforms are needed.
“Italy has a poor representation of women in decision-making bodies — it’s a Catch 22. If those who take the decisions don’t reflect half the population, it is difficult to adapt policies,” Poggio added.
Sabbadini argued that developing social infrastructure would help boost growth, while also “improving the quality of life, reducing inequality and creating jobs for women”.
“There will be no growth if we do not resolve this problem,” she said.