Reconciling work and family life after the arrival of children can be very difficult, especially for women.
In 2020, the year of the pandemic outbreak, female employment in Italy fell to 49%. Women with children suffered the most, with an employment rate 25% lower than their childless colleagues.
In Italy, one of the main measures introduced for new working mothers is maternity leave, which provides for compulsory abstention from work for employees during pregnancy and in the period after childbirth. It is accompanied by parental leave (also called optional maternity leave, for a maximum duration of six months), which is not compulsory and is paid at 30%.
The compulsory nature of this leave was regulated by the Consolidated Act on Maternity and Paternity Leave (Legislative Decree No. 151 of 26 March 2001). The legislation guarantees an allowance for the woman, equal to 80% of the average global daily wage calculated on the basis of the last pay period before the start of maternity leave. The expected duration of maternity leave is five months.
The 2019 Budget Act introduced the possibility for mothers to abstain from work exclusively after the event of childbirth, provided that a medical specialist certifies that this will not create harm to the unborn child.
However, in order for women workers to be able to smoothly return to work after childbirth, this instrument is hardly sufficient.
New welfare instruments
This also requires the innovative welfare instruments that companies are increasingly making available to employees to facilitate their return to the workplace after childbirth and to allow a better balance between family and work needs.
A positive example of these best practices concerns Sanofi, a global pharmaceutical company. The company has several orientation programmes for new mothers, including direct involvement of managers. This is to offer support from a psychological and motivational point of view and to develop a managerial and organisational culture able to better manage the return after maternity leave.
“In recent months we have extended the concept of parenthood and introduced 14 weeks of paid parental leave for any employee who will have a child regardless of the method (childbirth, adoption or surrogacy), gender or sexual orientation, as long as the employee is recognised as the child’s parent”, explains Francesco Veneziani, head of industrial relations at Sanofi Italy. “We have also implemented a new agreement on parental leave: from the first year until the first six years of the child’s life, each parent will receive a supplement of the leave pay in addition to what is provided by law. The Italian Social Welfare Institute (INPS) covers this cost up to 30%, yet we opted to increase this by an additional 20%–50%.
Veneziani also adds that “further initiatives have been introduced to support parenting with an extension of leave until the 18th birthday of the son or daughter. Measures we wish to promote to support parents (in the extensive concept of diversity and inclusiveness) in their family projects”.
These innovations were introduced in the latest comprehensive corporate agreement involving over 2,000 Sanofi employees in Italy. It also states that all childcare leave will also be extended to workers in civil partnerships and de facto cohabitations, without distinction.
The impact of COVID on women workers
Such measures are also necessary because women have been the most affected by the effects of the pandemic. Smart working, added to distance learning for children due to school closures, meant that for many women workers family commitments grew enormously during the lockdown months alongside their work duties.
This government-led COVID leave has, not surprisingly, been used mainly by women: 79% of the 300 thousand children concerned were taken care of by mothers and 21% by fathers.
And even now that the pandemic is in a less emergency phase, women still face the greatest difficulties in re-entering the labour market.
According to “The labour market: data and analysis”, a report jointly published in January by the Bank of Italy and the Ministry of Labour and Social Policies, employment grew in the last months of 2021, but the gender gaps fuelled by the pandemic have not yet been reabsorbed. Although female workers account for about 42% of the labour force, they account for only one third of the balance of permanent positions.
With respect to these difficulties and in general with respect to the obstacles that hinder women in the world of work, Sanofi has tried to further improve the corporate culture by initiating some awareness-raising mechanisms. “We organised webinars on gender stereotypes and gender-based violence“, says Veneziani. And to raise women’s awareness, training courses focused on women’s empowerment have also been launched: some women workers were paired with a senior colleague or colleague, including through mentorship, to support their development and growth. The aim was to make every worker understand the value of diversity within teams and that time away from work is crucial on a personal level and should therefore be supported and encouraged.
A survey of the “Italy’s best employers for women”German Institute for Quality and Finance (ITQF) revealed that there are 200 companies in Italy where women are happiest to work. Of these companies, 52 received the highest score and represent ideal employers.
For the ranking, 45 topics were considered, such as enterprise culture, vocational training and equal opportunities offered by welfare instruments.
Among the virtuous cases, there is Ferrari, confirmed for the third consecutive year as a Top Employer thanks to its commitment to continuous employee training and the reconfirmation of the certification of equal pay for men and women. This is Iren’s fifth consecutive year in the rankings, and the new ten-year business plan features 7,000 new recruits and a target of 30% female managers by 2030.
Nexi was awarded above all for its corporate welfare programme, one of the most comprehensive in Italy, which includes benefits such as a pension and supplementary health plan. Medtronic has also distinguished itself thanks to SmartMed, an initiative launched during the COVID-19 emergency to guarantee employment and interactivity, including working remotely, with a work organisation based on maximum flexibility and attention to employees and their families.