High incidence of atypical work among women

The 2008 report on atypical work by the Institute of Economic and Social Research explored in detail the employment situation of women. It found that, in general, women are over-represented in atypical employment and have less job stability than their male counterparts. Moreover, although women’s employment rate is increasing, it is characterised by strong regional differences and a propensity to work part time.


Over the past decade, women’s presence has increased in all aspects of the labour market including long-term, fixed-term, temporary and freelance employment. From 1993 to 2006, female employment increased by 1,683,000 workers, which represents a rise of 23% – amounting to 39% of total employment in 2006, compared with 34% in previous years. However, a closer look at the data reveals a more unfavourable situation for women – particularly in comparison with that of men. The Third report of the Permanent Observatory on Atypical Work in Italy (in Italian, 271Kb PDF), published by the Institute of Economic and Social Research (Istituto di Ricerche Economiche e Sociali, Ires) in 2008, pays particular attention to the situation of female workers. Ires acts as a research centre for the General Confederation of Italian Workers (Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro, Cgil) and its main focus is investigating the labour market. According to the authors of the report, few but significant data highlight the ‘female question’ in the Italian labour market.

Female employment activity rate

Although the female employment activity rate in Italy increased from 43% in 1995 to 51% in 2006, it remains the lowest in Europe at 12 percentage points below the European average among 25 of the EU Member States. Overall, women represent 76% of the total increase in employment: the proportion of women among workers on open-ended contracts grew from 36% in 1993 to 41% in 2006, while the proportion of women among those on fixed-term contracts grew from 13% to 16% over the same period. However, despite the positive trend in terms of employment, female workers are still more disadvantaged than their male counterparts. As the findings in Table 1 show, women make up a higher proportion than men of those who are unemployed across the different age groups, while the employment rate of women is also significantly lower than that of men.

Table 1: Unemployment and employment rates by sex and age group, 2007 (%)
Age group Unemployment rate Employment rate
  Women (%) Men (%) Women (%) Men (%)
25–34 years 10.0 5.3 59.5 81.7
35–54 years 6.2 2.7 59.5 90.5

Source: Data for second quarter of 2007 from the National Institute for Statistics (Istituto Nazionale di Statistica, Istat)

Workers with low levels of job security

Women are also over-represented in atypical work and are more discriminated against than their male colleagues.

The Ires report uses data from the Labour Force Survey of the National Institute for Statistics (Istituto Nazionale di Statistica, Istat), as well as the National Institute of Social Insurance (Istituto Nazionale per la Previdenza Sociale, Inps) and the National Institute for Industrial Accident Insurance (Istituto Nazionale Assicurazione Infortuni sul Lavoro, Inail). It includes in the so-called ‘area of precarity’ not only people who were employed on atypical contracts at the time of the survey, but also those previously on fixed-term contracts or workers with a quasi-subordinate status, along with persons who have been unemployed for no more than a year. Thus, it estimates that there are about 3.4 million ‘workers with a low level of job stability’, compared with the more optimistic figure of one million which is usually cited in official statistics.

These ‘workers with a low level of job stability’ represent about 19% of total female employment (both employees and workers on fixed-term contracts), compared with 11% of total male employment. Half of female workers aged 15 to 24 years and more than a quarter of those aged 25 to 34 years are in ‘precarious employment’ – that is, employed on fixed-term contracts, such as temporary agency work and freelance or project collaboration contracts. Moreover, women form the majority (57%) of single-income quasi-subordinate workers. At the same time, in the case of temporary agency work, the proportion of women grew from 39.9% in 2002 to 43% in 2006, while the share of men declined from 60.1% to 57% in the same period.

Furthermore, women working on a temporary agency work contract are, on average, older than their male counterparts. Two sources have highlighted this difference between men and women. According to 2004 research conducted by the Institute for Social Research (Istituto per la Ricerca Sociale, Irs), in collaboration with a number of training and education research bodies, among a representative sample of 2,336 temporary agency workers, 15.5% of female workers in this category were over 40 years of age compared with 12.9% of men. In 2008, Ires reported a similar difference among a sample of 1,000 temporary agency workers, where 21% of women were over 40 years compared with 17.7% of male workers. It is likely that older women use temporary agency work as a way of re-entering the labour market after having exited to assume family responsibilities.

Women and part-time work

Much of the literature on the labour market attributes the growing female presence to the increase in part-time work, although it is well known that this type of work is not always a voluntary choice of female workers. Overall, women account for 73% of employees on fixed-term, part-time contracts. Part-time work is a voluntary choice for only 36% of these workers, compared with 57% of part-time female workers on open-ended contracts. More generally, it is mainly working mothers who avail of reduced work schedules.

Regional and educational differences

The Ires report also highlights variations in female employment patterns across the different regions in Italy. Generally speaking, women in southern Italy are more likely to work on fixed-term contracts, that is, as freelance or project workers, and for temporary work agencies: 23% of southern female workers aged between 35 and 54 years are employed on temporary contracts, compared with 14.6% in central Italy and 9.5% of those living in the north of the country. The lower the educational qualification, the greater this likelihood is among female workers.

Need for measures targeting women and families

Finally, the authors of the report point to the need to put in place adequate welfare measures for families and flexible work schedules, possibly in more stable jobs ‘which do not discourage women by confining them to part-time jobs with scant career prospects’.


The Ires report was presented in Rome in March 2008. Rather than focusing on more general social issues, the report seems to have encouraged greater debate on the subject of women at work among social science academies. A recent report (in Italian) by the European welfare expert Maurizio Ferrera highlights the importance of having more women at work for the re-launch of the Italian economy.

Manuela Galetto, Fondazione Seveso

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