When Italian president Giorgio Napolitano appointed 10 expert consultants to lead Italy out of its political gridlock late last month, it would appear he could not find one qualified woman to add to the list. The list comprises 10 men, including former European leaders to notable economists, who are certainly qualified to address the crucial reforms the country needs to move forward. But surely there must have been at least one woman in the whole country to add balance and perspective to the mix. Apparently not, but Napolitano insists that it isn’t a reflection of a lack of qualified women in the country. “It’s not true there aren’t any women among the wise,” said Napolitano being called to task on the topic. “That touches on the ridiculous."
The president’s choice was met with a flutter of critical tweets and condescending comments from Italy’s best-known female politicians, but the reality of the situation is that it proves once again that women’s equality is at a standstill in Italy. “It’s sad, very sad,” said Emma Bonino, former European commissioner and leader of the Radical party after Napolitano’s list was announced. “This commission does not reflect the makeup of our society. It denies the presence of women in society. It is not a far-sighted choice.”
Napolitano instead says that his commission is temporary and in no way meant to be representative of the country as a whole. He says it was an emergency measure in a desperate moment, and that the 10 “wise men” were carefully selected from a group of political-party leaders and influential business experts who just happen to be predominantly men. But just three weeks before his appointments, he gave a speech on International Women’s Day in which he seemingly lamented gender inequality in the country. “The level of equality between the sexes is an indicator, a thermometer of the degree of civilization of a nation,” he said in his prepared statement. “But even today in Italy, where the status of women can not be compared to the past, much work remains to be done.” So why didn’t he start the work by setting a better example?
“I’m sick to death and this is the hundredth time these symbols point to one thing: that women are not important and are not considered relevant on the political agenda,” Zanardo says.
Lorella Zanardo is a documentary filmaker and author who has dedicated her life’s work to exposing inequality in the country through her film Il Corpo Delle Donne and educating the next generation of Italians about gender equality. She believes Napolitano’s explanation that women weren’t slighted intentionally, but she says that on a symbolic level, not having equal gender representation on a committee tasked with guiding the future of the country sends the message that equality is not a priority when building that future.
“I’m sick to death and this is the hundredth time these symbols point to one thing, that women are not important and are not considered relevant on the political agenda,” she told The Daily Beast. She is especially disappointed that women have no say in the immediate future of the country when Italian women actually won 30 percent of the vote in elections in February that did not result in a majority government by any party or coalition. She believes part of the problem is that women are not better represented in the media, either as authors of articles and programming or as protagonists. “Women are only sidebars in the news,” she says, pointing to the lack of female journalists in the nations’s top daily newspapers and to the fact that news about women is often when they are the victim of another murder.
According to the influential women’s-rights group Se Non Ora Quando (If not now, when?), the situation in Italy will only continue to get worse without the inclusion of women on the national agenda. The group launched a petition with a biting statement on its website after Napolitano’s committee was named. “The presence of women is essential to economic growth. We are tired of having it recognized in words, and then denied in practice: as if the emergency changed the problems. How did this happen before the election that all leaders would agree in saying that the role of women was central, and after the elections the ball is passed to only the male leaders?”
The situation is decidedly grim, but it may get even worse. Italian women continue to be undervalued in both the public and private sectors across the country, and by many measures, the situation is getting worse. In 2012, Italian women dropped from 74th to 80th place in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap report. The country is going through a grueling recession with unemployment hovering around 11 percent. In February women’s unemployment actually dropped slightly from the previous month, but a closer look at the statistics shows that the reason is primarily because women are being hired at far lower salaries in jobs previously held by men. In short, men are fired and women are hired to replace them at what amounts to discount salaries. “It’s a slap in the face,” says Zanardo, who travels the country lecturing to elementary and secondary students about gender equality. “You cannot retrain the current generation of leaders. Our only hope is to invest in the next generation. In 10 years we will have a better country, but it will be an uphill battle to get there.”