There are 23 million people in jobs in Italy. Little over a third of those are women (9.7 million). The female employment rate in Italy has grown in recent years, reaching 48.8%. But it is a slow growth and Italy still has the lowest rate in Europe when it comes to women in work. The European average is 60%. Just a glance at the rates in nearby countries, shows the difference: in the Netherlands, two thirds of the employed population is female while in Germany it is half. Only Greece brings in worse figures than Italy, with a lowly 45% of women in work. According to the latest European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) report, the gender gap in Italian employment is 18%.
In recent years the situation has certainly improved. The number of women entering the job market has grown and Italian National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT) figures show that female employment in Italy is at its highest level since 1977. But there are two sides to every coin. As female employment has grown, so has part-time work and there is a large number of women in such jobs – many more than men – especially in the years after having children. According to ISTAT’s data, 32.8% of women are in part-time work (for men that figure is 8%). It is, of course, a useful tool for balancing work and family. But it is not always out of choice that these female employees work part-time. This is where the issue of involuntary part-time work comes in, a phenomenon for which Italy holds the record: six in ten of these employees are women. These are part-time employees who, given the choice, would rather work full time. There has been a veritable boom of involuntary part-time work in Italy, leaping from 403,000 in 2009 to 748,000 in 2016. Researchers at ISTAT explain that this is exacerbated by the fact that these jobs are often full-time jobs parading as part-time ones.
What is the problem, then, with female employment in Italy? The crux of the matter is the balance between work and family. Simply put, children (and often grandparents) who need looking after. Care work in Italy is still almost always left to the women: on an average weekday for an employed couple where the woman is between 25 and 44 years old, the woman works (including paid work and work looking after the family) a total of 53 minutes more than her partner. This gap increases by over an hour if they have children.
What is needed, then? More services, beginning with nurseries. In Italy today, just 22.8% of children under the age of three have a place at nursery.
It is no coincidence that the number of women who permanently leave work after having their first child remains high. Data provided by the National Labour Inspectorate suggests that the number of women who leave a job in a year is 29,879. Among the mothers, just 5,261 leave to take a job at another company, while the remaining 24,618 specify reasons linked to the difficulty of taking care of a child (high childcare costs or a lack of nurseries) or of establishing a work-family balance.
What is needed, then? More services, beginning with nurseries. In Italy today, just 22.8% of children under the age of three have a place at nursery. This number has increased in recent years, especially in the North and Centre. But in the South, the figures remain low and nurseries rarely operate extended hours. The same issue exists for full-time primary school options, which are less common in Italy’s southern regions.
But the biggest change needed is a cultural one, relating to sharing domestic work between men and women, an imbalance that is beginning to decrease in young couples. And it is along the road – albeit a long and torturous one – to improving the state of female employment that education and qualifications become hugely important. This is where Italy excels. The World Economic Forum says the number women now enrolling in universities exceeds the number of men by 36 percentage points. And certificates of higher education correlate with lower salary gender gaps and more women in work.
Changing the system could mean creating laws that divide maternity and paternity leave equally, as is already the case in many central and northern European countries.
But the cultural issue is, of course, evident in the existing legislation. Italy’s maternity leave is the longest of any country in Europe, some 150 days compared to 112 in France and Spain and 90 in Germany. It is also one of the countries with the highest levels of remuneration during maternity leave, paying 80% of the full salary.
Having to cease working for 150 days is often problematic, but changing the system could involve creating laws that divide maternity and paternity leave equally. This is already the case in many Central and Northern European countries where the idea that the father is also responsible for looking after and educating his children has influenced law-making. Italy, on the other hand, gives fathers just four days of paternity leave, compared to 13 in Spain and 73 in France.
The impact on our country is beyond negative: it is not a simple case of underusing the female workforce, but of underusing the country’s most educated subjects. A recent Eurofound report on the matter confirms that of all European countries, Italy would benefit most from an increase in female employment. The total cost to Italy of this underuse of female human capital is 88 billion euros – that is 5.7% of GDP. An increase in female employment therefore equates to an increase in the country’s wealth.