Career discrimination against women examined

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Two recent studies, published in April 2000 and March 2001, highlight the very low representation of women in managerial and senior positions in the private and public sectors in Italy, compared with the situation in other EU countries. The reports examine how and why women are excluded from career advancement, and propose measures to address this discrimination.

Research and studies about the employment situation in Italy do not often take into consideration gender aspects. The lack of such data makes it very difficult to deal with employment and social issues from the gender point of view. The lack of attention paid to gender aspects is fostered by a legislative and collectively agreed framework which prohibits any form of discrimination among workers and which abolished gender differences in collectively-agreed wage rates in the late 1960s.

The growing presence of women in the labour market, the increase in women's participation in education and the success of women's movements within employers' and workers' organisations have served to highlight the real situation of women at work in Italy. According to figures from the National Statistical Institute (Istituto nazionale di statistica, Istat), the employment rate for women in 2000 stood at 37% (with 7,764,000 women in employment compared with 13,316,000 men). A large majority of "atypical workers" - ie those employed on part-time or fixed-term contracts, or in temporary agency work, homeworking or freelance work "coordinated" by the employer - IT0011273F) - are women. Of all women in employment, 26.3% are in atypical employment, compared with 13.9% of all men (according to "L'impatto della flessibilità sul lavoro delle donne", Censis, 1999)

The massive increase in the number of women on the labour market has not automatically led to women having access to positions of responsibility within organisations. According to two recent studies, real discrimination against women exists in terms of their career development and their confinement to "typically feminine" jobs. Oltre il tetto di cristallo ("Beyond the glass ceiling") is a study on women and their professional careers carried out by the Marisa Bellisario Foundation (Fondazione Marisa Bellisario), a non-profit organisation for the promotion of women's entrepreneurial and managerial activities, and published in April 2000. Figlie di Minerva ("Minerva's daughters"), published in March 2001, is a report on women's careers in Italian publicly-funded research organisations, drawn up by a coordination committee created in January 1999 within the presidency of the National Research Council (Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, Cnr) and composed of researchers from the main national research centres. The main findings of the two reports are set out below.

Women's careers

The findings of the two studies confirm that the top management of both private and public companies is predominantly composed of men, who also fill most of the highest academic and scientific positions in Italian public research centres

In 1997, women made up 2% of managers in Italian private manufacturing, insurance and banking. This figure rose to 10% if the public administration is included. The Italian situation in terms of women in management is one of the worst in Europe. In northern European countries, 30% of management positions are held by women and in other countries such as France and Germany, more women fill important positions than in Italy.

However, there are conflicting data on this subject. According to Istat, about 65,000 women hold managerial positions. Perhaps more realistically, according to Censis, the social studies research institute, there are 7,000 female managers in the private sector (about 7% of the total) and 6,000 in the public sector (13% of the total) - a total of 13,000.

The access of women to management positions in private companies seems to be inversely proportional to the size of the company: 7% of managers are women in small companies and 3% in large companies (with more than 500 employees ).

There are also considerable sectoral variations. In the service sector, for example, there are more women managers. Advertising companies have the highest percentage of women in their management teams (35%). In the media sector, the percentage of women in high positions is low only in the daily press, at 4.1%, while for weekly and monthly magazines the percentage of women managers stands at 41.6% and 36.1% respectively.

Even in the public sector the situation of women varies according to the type of activity. In the public administration at central level, the average proportion of managers who are women is 22%. The situation is better in local administrations: women make up 24% of managers in regional administrations and a higher proportion in the larger municipalities. In universities, the percentage of women in high positions is lower than in the other sectors of the public administration, and there are no permanent women lecturers in many scientific and technical departments. The situation is the same for private universities: in the economics departments of the Luiss and Bocconi universities there are no women amongst the 63 permanent lecturers.

The situation of women in research institutions is seen to be particularly difficult, because their low presence in positions of responsibility as at odds with their high level of university education. Women make up 55.2% of university graduates, but their presence in research departments is very low. The preponderance of women among graduates is the result of the greater equal opportunities accessible to women today. The prejudice that saw women confined to the role of mothers and housewives no longer stands. Women's greater investment in education and training is also a response to a closed labour market, in particular for those with only a high school education: the difference between female and male unemployment rates is particularly great among high school graduates aged between 20 and 24, with 40.7% unemployment among women in this group and 33.8% among men. Women thus seek to continue their education at university level in order to prepare themselves better to compete with men on the labour market. However, the difficulties encountered by women in many research institutions are clearly highlighted by the Cnr study on public research centres

The Cnr study finds that there is a veritable "male lobby", or "old boys network", in public research centres, which seems to influence deeply the system of career evaluation and the allocation of resources for research activities. Career advancement in public research centres is governed by state competitive examinations (the so-called ""concorsi), but the data available do not distinguish candidates by gender and this does not allow for the influence of gender on examination success to be evaluated. However, it is known that the female presence among third-level researchers (the lowest level) is very high in all research centres and usually above 50%, but it decreases notably at the higher levels. Overall, of all researchers only 6.8% of women are at the first level compared with 17.9% of men. The disparity is particularly apparent in research centres were a majority of researchers work in areas with a high presence of women (such as biology, medicine or "humanistic" subjects): although there is a large majority of women at the lower levels, men predominate at the first level where the managerial responsibility is higher.

Furthermore, according to the Cnr research group it is very rare for a woman to fulfil her career potential, because "very often she stops progressing at the intermediate levels, and this happens irrespective of her education, the organisation for which she works, her seniority or age."

Another form of discrimination noted in the research is the form of employment relationship offered to researchers. In research centres, women are predominantly hired on fixed-term contracts while men are more likely to be hired on open-ended contracts.

The real barriers to women's careers

Besides documenting the scant presence of women in managerial and top positions, the two studies also examine the factors which contribute to this de facto discrimination against women.

Access to managerial positions is found to be the result of a series of interacting conditions. First of all, a constant presence at the workplace is necessary: managerial or top academic or research positions require high investments in terms of time, and therefore unlimited working hours, availability without notice and geographical mobility. Second, besides this individual investment, career advancement is found to go hand in hand with being part of a "lobby" or pressure group which allows the individual to progress, and without which the climb up the career ladder is not possible.

Women are penalised on both counts. At present, women workers are faced with a social and family situation whereby they often have to look after both the house and the family. In this situation, not very many women manage to compete with their male colleagues in terms of full commitment to their job. It is telling that the widespread entrance of women into the Italian labour market has coincided with a sharp decline in the birth rate. The importance of the lobby is also an obstacle to women's careers. The research suggests that by considering "team spirit" as secondary to the successfulness of their work, they seem to have a mental attitude that "if I work well somebody will acknowledge my work" and, in practice, they are excluded from lobby mechanisms.

The possible alternatives

The conclusion of both studies is that women must look for another way to climb the career ladder.

Some women, for example, believe that "entrepreneurship" is a "way out" which will enable them to exploit their managerial qualities. They may abandon their competition with men and prefer to start their own business, indicating that the "most determined women prefer to confront the market rather than hostile structures". The number of women entrepreneurs in Italy has increased by 20% over recent years.

The Marisa Bellisario Foundation researchers have identified three elements which can help women act within the male-dominated "power game":

  • on the personal and private level, women must seek to acquire security and learn to achieve their potential;
  • organisational structures should abandon male stereotypes, overcoming the typical gender divisions of work. Moreover, a greater flexibility should be introduced in working hours, in order to allow a more targeted organisation of working time, capable of reconciling the needs of both private and working life. Work should be organised so as to allow women to keep abreast of their work during maternity leave, through the exploitation of new technologies; and
  • from the cultural point of view, the gender difference stereotypes should be erased and social services for the support of families and the care of children should be greatly developed. Men and women should shoulder an equal share of household work, "in a different conception of social responsibility".

Both studies identify training as the key factor. Society should be re-educated by fostering in all university degree courses and training centres "a new ability to understand the attitudes and background of men and women outside the stereotypes implanted by family and education". Furthermore, women must learn not to refuse "team spirit" and the lobby should be seen as a network which supports the individual and not only as a tool for advancement. These developments should be accompanied by precise actions aimed at removing any cultural obstacles: for example, the introduction of a mandatory equal number of men and women candidates in all types of election or competitive examination.


The two studies by the Marisa Bellisario Foundation and Cnr show that a greater sensibility is developing towards gender discrimination, and their findings should encourage the emergence of gender questions as a key issue in Italy. There are many isolated initiatives but the attention attached by the social partners and political institutions to these issues is still not enough. In particular, there is a need to develop, in a systematic way, the "mainstreaming" approach, as well as evaluation of the gender impact of the policies developed by the institutions and the social partners. The improvement of such policies also depends on the development of an evaluation culture able to fill the current gap in evaluation (in advance, ongoing and after the event) of public policies and the social partners as regards equal opportunities. This gap is not only cultural but also political as well, and delays the elaboration and implementation of mainstreaming-oriented policies on the part of both the institutions and the social partners. (Cesos)

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