Italy: Berlusconi ousting dramatically paves the way to end gender inequality
The Guardian ~ London ~ Saturday November 26 2011, page 37
Italy's women look to more equal future after fall of Berlusconi
Incoming prime minister, Mario Monti, says correcting gender imbalance in Italian society is of urgent economic necessity John Hooper in Rome
Italy's prime minister, Mario Monti, shakes hand with the new interior minister, Anna Maria Cancellieri. (Giuseppe Lami/EPA)
When Valeria Fedeli heard the word, she was astonished. Presenting his government's programme to parliament last week, Italy's new prime minister, Mario Monti, said that ensuring women were represented in every aspect of the country's life had become indifferibile – "un-put-off-able".
It was not just that a remark like that would have been unthinkable from Monti's predecessor, Silvio Berlusconi. It was that indifferibile – not a word you hear every day in Italy – appeared to be a coded allusion to the slogan that earlier this year spurred a nationwide protest against the image of Italian women that Berlusconi was giving to the world: "If not now, when?"
Fedeli, who was among the organisers, says that Berlusconi's departure means "the climate has changed". Only one of the women in the TV magnate's last cabinet, the education minister, Mariastella Gelmini, held a portfolio of substance. The equal opportunities brief went to a former topless calendar model.
In stark contrast, Monti has handed three of the most senior jobs in his non-party government to women. Elsa Fornero, a 63-year-old university professor whose first speech was described by the centre-left leader, Pierluigi Bersani, as "truly notable", took over the big-spending employment and welfare department.
A leading academic and courtroom lawyer, Paola Severino, also 63, became justice minister at what president Giorgio Napolitano called "a particularly difficult and complex time". She faces the daunting task of finding ways to speed up Italy's legendarily sluggish courts, which have become an important obstacle to investment, particularly foreign investment.
Severino can also expect to come under huge pressure from Berlusconi's party – still the biggest in parliament – to shield its leader, who is currently a defendant in three separate trials for offences ranging from bribery to paying for the services of a juvenile prostitute.
Perhaps the most onerous job – and arguably the most senior after Monti's – went to Anna Maria Cancellieri, the new interior minister. Cancellieri, a 68-year-old retired prefect, was to be found on Friday in Palermo at a conference on the mafia.
In the nine days since she was sworn in, she has visited flood victims, met the mayor of Rome to discuss an upsurge in gangland killings, and floated a proposal that, at a time of economic crisis, Italy's ministers should be paid in government bonds.
Cancellieri is also the only woman minister who has so far given an interview. Speaking to the gossip mag, Chi, she took a carefully aimed swipe at her compatriots' enthusiasm for celebrating International Women's Day.
"I'm in favour of genuine equality, and not for remembering about it once a year," she said. "Authentic parity for women would come with social services that allowed them to reconcile everything: career, the care of children and the elderly."
Thirty years ago, Italy had one of the world's punchiest feminist movements. But after a string of victories, including the country's 1978 abortion law, the women's movement seemed to go into hibernation until it was goaded back to life by Berlusconi.
Fedeli said some of the women behind the 13 February demonstration had known each other in the heyday of Italian feminism in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and that when they made contact again, "we started to ask: whatever happened?"
One answer is that Italy fell behind to a spectacular extent. In the 2011 World Economic Forum global gender gap report, it was ranked 48 places behind Mozambique – 74th out of the 135 countries surveyed.
As Monti signalled in his address to parliament, correcting the gender imbalance in Italian society was no longer just a matter of fairness, but of urgent economic necessity. A prime cause of Italy's recent low growth is female participation in the workforce which, according to the WEF, is lower than in any other European country except Macedonia.
That is largely because so few Italian women return to work as mothers, and that in turn is partly because of so-called dimissioni in bianco – signed resignations demanded by employers that can be invoked as soon as a woman becomes pregnant. They were banned by Italy's last, centre-left government in 2007. Less than three months after Berlusconi returned to office the following year and with a minimum of publicity, let alone protest, the ban was overturned.
"His departure has removed an obstacle," said Fedeli. "But this is still no country for women."