Equal opportunities and positive action examined

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In Italy, equal opportunities have been an important issue in collective bargaining and industrial relations since the 1980s, but the spread of equality programmes and positive action is still limited and measures taken at company level have rarely become a permanent feature. However, a recent study analysing initiatives to support equal opportunities between women and men at the workplace at three companies (Coop Toscana Lazio, IBM Semea and Electrolux-Zanussi), conducted in 2000, indicates that it is possible to narrow the gap between women and men in terms of access to jobs and career advancement, though important differences persist.

The position of women on the labour market in Italy has improved in recent years, but there is still a major gap between the situations of women and men, and between the situation in Italy and in most other European Union countries. Notably, the activity rate for women is below that for men (in October 2000 it was 47% for women, compared with 74.1% for men) and is among the lowest in Europe. This low activity rate is coupled with one of the EU's highest female unemployment rates (13.8%). Besides, women are often found in "atypical jobs," such as part-time work (which remains less developed than in other European countries) and "freelance work coordinated by the employer" (collaborazioni coordinate e continuative) (IT0011273F), as well as in low-skilled jobs, and they often earn a lower wage than their male co-workers in the same positions (IT9905114N).

These data suggest the existence of considerable room for action in order to guarantee a more equal access to employment and professional development. Law 125 of 10 April 1991 on equal opportunities introduced a number of measures to prevent discrimination based on gender, punish any discriminatory behaviour and financially support the implementation of positive action to reduce the gap between women and men.

In Italy, the main reasons that have favoured the development of equality programmes have been, on one side, the support and promotion granted by law 125 of 1991 and, on the other, the role of collective bargaining and industrial relations which, largely on the initiative of trade unions, have led to the recognition of the importance of the issue of equal opportunities at the workplace.

Equality study

A recent study, carried out in the first half of 2000 in the framework of a research project by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions on "gender equality at the workplace", analyses three companies that have focused on the issue of equal opportunities between women and men ("Gender equality at the workplace: national report for Italy", E Olgiati, E Rapisardi and M La Salandra, so far unpublished research carried out for the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, Dublin). A first important feature emphasised by the study is the persistence of discrimination and of occupational segregation of women. The firm-level initiatives examined started from a recognition of this situation and a will to narrow the gender gap, which is apparent in the over-representation of women in low-grade, low-skilled and low-responsibility job positions and in their corresponding under-representation among higher-level and managerial posts.

The essential aspect which lies at the heart of the companies' efforts to reduce discrimination against women in the workplace is a corporate culture which, though with different emphases, supports a full "valorisation" of human resources. This is linked to specific company values which, in certain circumstances, are strengthened by the challenges of the market and competition. In fact, competitive strategies based on quality are often connected to a higher attention to human resource development, notably when "relational skills" become crucial both within individual organisations and in their relationship with customers. The three firms examined in the research are: Coop Toscana Lazio, a consumer cooperative which operates in the large-scale retail market; IBM Semea, the Italian subsidiary of the multinational information technology company; and Electrolux-Zanussi, which produces "white goods" and is part of the Swedish-owned Electrolux group.

Basic principles

The study found that the "cultural foundations" of the attention given to the issue of equality between female and male workers are to be found, in the case of Coop Toscana Lazio, in the traditions of the cooperative movement, which has always been concerned with the social responsibility of the enterprise, in relations with both workers and the local community where the cooperatives carry out their activities. In the USA, IBM has made the central importance and the valorisation of human resources and of diversity key elements of its corporate identity and, since the 1930s, has affirmed the importance of achieving equal opportunities for women and men within its company organisation. This sensibility has been transferred to its Italian subsidiary, together with concrete human resource management practices. Electrolux-Zanussi has taken on the employee and trade union involvement policies of the Swedish Electrolux group and developed a participatory industrial relations system which has included, since the early 1990s, a specific attention to equal opportunities, and has established a joint committee on this issue at group level, known as the "Ipazia" committee (IT9706206F).

IBM Semea is different from the other two cases in that it does not organise specific positive action measures for women at present. Some programmes were implemented in 1970s, on the firm's initiative and before any legislative intervention. Now, IBM Semea has mainstreamed into company practices and procedures its commitment to supporting equal opportunities and reducing the constraints to career advancement for women. Furthermore, it systematically - although, according to the study, in a "soft" way - ensures that discrimination or gender gaps do not increase again. The non-discrimination principle guides all human resource management activities, from recruitment to assessment, reward, and development. The main criteria which regulate career advancement are, on one side, skills and results and, on the other, individual choices and aspirations. The company, therefore, is committed to guaranteeing equality of opportunities, while leaving considerable room for individual initiative. For instance, no specific support for reconciling work and family life is granted to working mothers: the choice between work and family and the search for a balance, taking advantage of the broad flexibilities which are available to all workers, is considered an individual prerogative, which must not be influenced by the company. In the case of IBM Semea, the role of trade unions at company level is marginal and equal opportunities initiatives can be considered a fully autonomous company policy. As far as Coop Toscana Lazio and Electrolux-Zanussi are concerned, the integration between positive action and industrial relations is, by contrast, very strong.

Recruitment and appraisal

Despite the differences between the approaches and structure of the three firms' equality initiatives, two areas of intervention seem to be crucial in every case - staff recruitment and appraisal. All three employers have tried to develop methods of personnel recruitment and appraisal which are as objective as possible, coupling traditional interviews with impersonal tools, such as tests and questionnaires. Besides, efforts have been made to favour women's applications for vacant posts by choosing wordings in advertisements that make explicit a strong willingness to consider female candidates, as well as by utilising information channels or self-nomination practices that eliminate as far as possible any obstacles to the submission of applications by women. All these procedures have been supported by special training initiatives on non-discriminatory recruitment and appraisal and by monitoring the outcomes of recruitment and promotion, in order to assess the effectiveness of the measures in reducing gender discrimination. This issue is particularly important, since the analyses which were carried out within the firms in the framework of their equal opportunity plans showed that the jobs from which women tend to be excluded are the main "entry points" to career advancement towards managerial positions. Another interesting feature of human resource management in the three firms is that career paths are not conceived as "linear" progressions, but as "open tracks": people who remain "excluded", also by personal choice, at a certain period in time, may always re-enter and be eligible for advancement at a later time. This possibility is sustained by training possibilities which are also "open": self-nomination is an important criterion for gaining access to training schemes.

A particularly significant case of intervention in the recruitment process is found at an Electrolux-Zanussi plant, which developed following an issue raised by trade unions at the Ipazia equal opportunities committee. The plant-level trade union representative body had noticed that, in practice, a lower percentage of women were recruited than applied for jobs. An investigation carried out by the Ipazia committee found that selection was being conducted in a discriminatory way and was based on a prejudgment that some positions were "unsuitable for women". Corrective actions included: the revision of selection criteria; training sessions with recruiters on conducting non-discriminatory interviews; and some technical adjustments of the job positions which were considered unsuitable for women.

In all three cases, the measures in the area of human resource recruitment and appraisal have led to positive results. In particular, at Coop Toscana Lazio, the representation of female workers in higher positions, if not managerial ones, increased from 9.4% in 1995 to 24.2% in 1999. Over the same period, the proportion of female managers at IBM Semea rose from 5% to 10% of the total, whereas the proportion of female middle-managers increased from 8% to 15%. Furthermore, the percentage of women among all new recruits at IBM Semea rose from 25.4% of the total in 1995 to 37.4% in 1999. Remarkable improvements have also taken place at Electrolux-Zanussi: first, the share of women in total employment rose from 25.2% in 1992 to 43.2% in 1999, which compares with a sectoral average of less than 20%; and, second, there are signs of significant changes even in the higher positions - the proportion of middle-managers who are women increased from 22.5% to 33% and managers from 4.6% to 14.9%.

Positive action

Besides intervention in the area of employee recruitment and evaluation, Coop Toscana Lazio and Electrolux-Zanussi have conducted specific positive action programmes, some of them financed in accordance with law 125 of 1991. Coop Toscana Lazio has implemented a "mentoring" project, supporting women in their career paths through a form of individual tutorship by a person who, owning to her or his experience and competence, can help each female worker to learn and acquire the know-how needed for professional development. The project's objectives are to: develop female leadership models; set up a network of women in a career path; and offer an institutionalised framework for enriching and transmitting professional experience. Since the project has led to positive results, the company has chosen to adopt it permanently and extend it to male workers.

The Ipazia committee at Electrolux-Zanussi has made a particular effort to allow a better reconciliation between family and working life. It has thus organised a number of measures, including the possibility for team workers in a production unit (almost all of whom were women) to manage their working time autonomously. After a difficult start-up phase, the usefulness of this programme has been acknowledged and the system has been extended to other production units. The problems which emerged in the first phase of the project were linked to the novelty of the initiative, the lack of experience in managing flexible schedules and the difficulty that team members experienced in finding ways of coordinating among themselves. Other initiatives at Electrolux-Zanussi have included:

  • a teleworking experiment, aimed at avoiding long periods of leave due to caring responsibilities for children or elderly people (IT9712218F);
  • the "Oikos" project that, once started, will offer, at no cost and during working time, a crèche for children aged between four and 10 on the plant premises, for workers who cannot take advantage of existing external services;
  • an "hours bank" which should enable a more flexible and individualised use of working time by allowing workers to "save" compensation for overtime work in personal accounts which can be used later for paid leave; and
  • the drawing up of a code of conduct to protect the dignity of women and men in the workplace and prevent, notably, any form of sexual harassment (IT9803154N).


The study shows the existence of broad areas of discrimination against women at the workplace. It finds that gender gaps are rooted in social roles and norms which change only slowly and are reflected in discriminatory attitudes widely present in all company processes. The consequences for women are even more pronounced, since social roles and norms, partly taken on by women themselves, influence educational and professional choices, segmenting the labour market and reducing female presence in particular skill areas. However, the research results stress that specific actions to develop human resources and draw out the potential of female workers, eliminating some constraints to the career advancement of women which are present in company processes, may reduce the gap in the levels of achievement between women and men. In fact, a commitment to equal opportunity objectives may positively interact with current labour market transformations, which include an increase in female activity rates and a progressive reduction of gender segmentation, turning these "macro-social" changes into "micro" developments at firm level.

In a number of companies, which still represent a minority, equality action has represented a powerful instrument to identify and redress discrimination, as well as an effective tool to innovate human resource management. In some companies, mostly large ones, extremely significant initiatives have been developed in order to change corporate culture and the approach to women at work, giving rise to substantial qualitative and quantitative improvements for female workers and ensuring their access to traditionally male jobs. In others, positive action programmes have ensured wider professional development and career opportunities for women in traditional female - "dead-end" - jobs (such as secretaries and assembly-line workers). A wide range of initiatives, particularly in the service sector, have been focusing on work-family reconciliation measures, professional development for part-time workers and re-entering employment after maternity leave. Yet, these are largely minority initiatives and the majority of employers still consider equal opportunity actions as a constraint and a cost, having more to do with industrial relations than human resource management. The result is that equality appears quite marginal in the Italian debate and it is seldom embedded in companies' strategies and policies. Many positive action programmes either do not go beyond a diagnostic and generic awareness-raising phase: no concrete measures are then implemented. The programmes tend to have a short "life-cycle": interventions at firm level rarely become a permanent feature and they last only as long as funding is provided.

Even on the trade union side there are some difficulties. Although, since the middle of the 1980s, equality has become a bargaining issue at both national and company level, equal opportunity initiatives remained essentially a "women-only" issue. This is apparent particularly at company level, where, whilst women unionists have been championing equality, union representative bodies as a whole often do not go beyond declarations of principles. It is important to stress, however, that despite this contradictory behaviour, where equal opportunity actions have been implemented they have helped the unions to extend their representation to women workers often characterised by low union participation and involvement, and to widen their bargaining role. (Etta Olgiati and Roberto Pedersini, Fondazione Regionale Pietro Seveso)

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