08 May 2013

About gender equality and other matters…

(Wonder)women of Tuscany

Italian women

This month, when we decided to write about women, I first thought that I would write something about famous Tuscan women. I had read this very interesting article “The skin they’re in: the uneasy paradox of Italian women – Part 1” and I had already left a long, long (long!) reply and a few more comments later, so I didn’t think I had much to add (I was evidently wrong…).

I am late with my Italy Blogging Roundtable post (also nothing new, lately…), but I have been thinking about this topic for weeks, at least since I read that and another couple of articles on the subject and exchanged a few comments with the other ladies in the roundtable.

I am the only Italian in the group (well… “made in Italy”, I should say) and reading about the way in which non-Italians see the situation of women in my country has been very interesting. I have to say I was at the same time surprised and not at all surprised.

Many of the “criticisms” were based, I believe, on deep cultural differences. But when one discusses this type of topic and speaks of “change”, or need thereof, one should always remember that what makes a culture a culture is exactly this type of cultural-specific aspects. If you are wondering what I am talking about, I invite you again to read the article I mentioned above, which focuses on aspects such as the fact that Italian women are slaves to fashion and the need to appear always at their best even just to run to the nearest shop to buy a loaf of bread (please Elizabeth, forgive me for the extreme simplification…!).

Some other aspects I have seen criticized in various articles are in my opinion universal – not just typical of Italian women (e.g. the need to look good to attract potential partners) or of human beings in general, for that matter… We do not leave in a vacuum: we always wonder what other people think of us. Our brain has even developed dedicated cognitive abilities, and they are exactly what makes human being different from other less developed forms of life.

I will not go over the many points that I have already discussed on Elizabeth’s blog, but  I will spend a few words on this gender equality ranking everybody mentions and which sees Italy perform very poorly (not “Africa poorly”, but not “Sweden brilliantly” either…). According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2012, Italy ranks 84th in terms of gender equality. The criteria on which the report relies are:

- Economic participation and opportunity – outcomes on salaries, participation levels and access to high-skilled employment
Educational attainment – outcomes on access to basic and higher level education
Political empowerment – outcomes on representation in decision-making structures
Health and survival – outcomes on life expectancy and sex ratio

I should say that living in Tuscany, I have realized that I have a “distorted” idea of many social issues. Let’s face it: we have a very good lifestyle here and some matters that are of no concern here might be totally different in other parts of the country. Anyway, looking at the points above, this is what I think.

It is true that in some positions men might be preferred to women. I know for a fact of situations in which women candidates have not been chosen because the employer feared that, once secured the job, they would immediately start a family and leave them to pay benefits and a second salary for a substitute. This is despicable and unfair. But again, I am ready to bet, there are similar situations and concerns everywhere, not just in Italy.

Other than this, I have never witnessed, or heard of discrimination in terms of work positions among my friends and acquaintances. Most of the women I know, as a matter of fact, work, either as employees or as owners of their own businesses. Nobody I know has been discriminated because of their look, but again all my friends are beautiful! LOL And none of them ever applied to jobs where you needed “bella presenza” (on this matter too, see my comments to Elizabeth’s post).

In terms of salaries, I am not sure how you can discriminate against women… salaries depend on the job you have, and are determined at the national level. In terms of high-skilled employment, again I am a researcher. Most of the associate and tenured professors in my department are women. Some of my best friends are employed in the Ufficio Comunicazione of the University, one is an air-traffic controller, another is a fabulous lawyer, some are doctors, with managerial roles too, and several others have created and run successful businesses. I might be lucky, or more simply I know a lot of hard working ladies who have University degrees and a great brain.

I am tempted to say that the sectors where you see few women are the sectors where only few women participate to begin with. All you have to do is step in a classroom of any of the scientific (engineering, physics, maths) degree courses: female students are remarkably outnumbered. But the women who do succeed in those degree courses, well, some of them become Vice Councellor first, and Minister of Education later. Women do have the same opportunities in terms of education in this country. And they do generally better than their male colleagues. It is rather than many women decide to study humanities and there are simply no jobs in humanities.

Moreover, it should not be forgotten that many girls decide to dedicate their time to the family instead of dedicating it to career. Also, we Italians do not like to live far from home, and that necessarily reduces opportunities. Choosing to devote time to the family is sometimes a necessity (often), sometimes a choice. And I am sure this aspect of our culture impacts on those numbers quite heavily.

I don’t know much about political empowerment (or involvement). In this case too, I think there are more men than women who are genuinely interested in politics. I see student representatives and they are mostly men. And I am talking in terms of candidates and participants too meetings too. You certainly need a certain personality to go into politics and I believe women are usually too honest and practical not to get frustrated after 10 minutes in any political debate! LOL It is certainly striking how good looking all the ladies in Berlusconi’s party are. That is suspicious… Also, I will not even comment on Berlusconi and how sexist he is. That and the fact that most Italians (men and women) do not find that unbearable and unacceptable is the real problem, I believe. Not the fact that women dress up to go to the toothless baker’s shop.

Finally,  I think in terms of health and survival we are doing pretty well (touching wood now…).

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that everything is perfect, that Italian women have no issues to solve. Not at all. What I am saying is that some of these issues are not issues at all for Italian women. And that is not a deadly sin.

Also, I am the least feminist woman out there, so I am very bad at defending gender equality. I do believe in equal rights and responsibilities, of course. But I also believe that in the real world, women should not feel the pressure of having to want to do the same things as men do. I am perfectly happy doing the laundry if I don’t have to bother repainting the house or bringing the wood for the stove in.

Moreover, women should not feel ashamed to be glad if a man opens the door for them (right Jessica?). Everybody knows we can open our own door and change our own light-bulbs, but little acts of chivalry are a nice way to acknowledge the fundamental role of women in society.

I do not believe that doing what men do is progress. Being allowed to do that if one wants is, but then women are women and men are men. We are so different and in many ways. Embracing this difference is nothing but natural and rewarding.

Renegotiating responsibilities is right, and I think it is also happening fast. Italian men will get there if women ask them to. But I still know lots of women who would rather die of exhaustion than have their husband organize their kitchen. We must respect this attitude too, and we must respect cultural attitudes when they are a choice and not a burden of course. Having a career that keeps you out of the house all day is not the top priority for all women out there, just like having children is not. Real progress is when a woman can choose the type of role she wants to occupy in society and I believe in Tuscany that is pretty much the case.

Now back to some trivia… this is a cultural/travel blog after all!

There are not many things that women and men did or do differently in Tuscany. They have traditionally shared chores in the countryside. Of course, house chores were carried out by women, but men were in charge of the heavy duty stuff. Here are a few things Tuscan (wonder)women do or used to do differently from men.

Tuscan women do not swear blasphemously. Here people swear a lot, and I am talking blasphemy. Women generally don’t. Blasphemy is generally condemned, but people are resigned to hear Tuscan men of all ages swear. That is hardly acceptable in women. We all do have a pretty colourful eloquence though.

Tuscan women do not go hunting. That is the last male territory.

Tuscan women did not get drunk. It is still true of the older generations, but gender equality has reached the younger generations in this concern I am afraid…

Tuscan women used to go to church on Sunday morning, while men went to the bar. And they would fight about it. Now most people go to the bar… both men and women. And they fight over the latest reality show instead.

Tuscan women used to eat last if they had guests: first they had to make sure everybody else was taken care of.

Tuscan women used to not slice bread, cured meat or cheese. That was a man’s job, and in most families (like mine), it still is.

 

Italy Blogging Roundtable

italy travel blog roundtableThis is the 20th post in a monthly series called The Italy Blogging Roundtable. Here you can find the posts of the other bloggers who participate in the roundtable. Our topic this month was “women“:

Comments

  1. Hi Gloria!

    Thanks for contributing so much more to the dialogue begun over at my blog :-) Your input and perspective as an Italian woman (and the only one in the Roundtable) is invaluable, and you make many very interesting points and observations–much of which, at least to some degree, I have seen in the years I’ve lived in Italy.

    There are so very many cultural nuances that are inevitably lost on the foreign-born expat, and undoubtedly many have been lost on me. And it is perhaps impossible to fully eradicate one’s own “cultural filter” when processing the customs and mores of another people–but it is important to try, to seek to understand, to turn things over in one’s mind and perhaps even discuss fledgling ideas, opinions, and yes, even critique where one feels so moved. Many writers have done this, Swift and Twain come to mind for starters. It’s important to do all of this with respect, stemming from a desire to understand, to know–and with a mind that is always open enough to amend one’s opinions should the winds of further wisdom change.

    This is what I was trying to do–turn the matter of “Italian women” over in my mind, try to fathom it, sound the depths, as it were. As I said, it is a subject that continues to elude my understanding. I don’t wish to criticize Italian women–on the contrary, I see their power and potential–and I would hardly divorce them from the culture they sprang from. But, based on my admittedly limited 12 year experience, and narrow as it might be in my little corner of Florence, I suppose I have formed certain opinions ;-)

    I think perhaps the most wonderful thing you hit on was “Italian men will get there if Italian women ask them to”; this is really key, isn’t it? Feeling empowered enough to ask and expect to then receive, and it’s always better to receive out of love and respect rather than any duty to feminism or any other abstract “ism”, for that matter.

    Great job in tackling a thorny topic! All the best :-)

    • Hi Elizabeth, thank you for stopping by! I truly enjoyed our exchange of opinions! And yes, lots of women swear very colourfully (me too), blasphemy though is rarer, even though it certainly happens.

      • ooops, my bad. You’re right, haven’t heard blasphemous things coming from women’s lips. If my MIL were to even *think* such thoughts, she’d implode spectacularly and scatter fiery, pious sparks as far as Piazza delle Cure ;-)

  2. P.S. Maybe I live in a rough neighborhood or something… but I’ve heard quite a number of Tuscan women swear most colorfully and vociferously ;-)

  3. Talking with my daughter’s and her 17 year old girl friends from Liceo Classico . I think the next generation of Italian women will know exactly what they want and work for the sort of world they wish to live in.

    • I am sure they will. And our son will have a harder time than his dad! LOL

  4. Alessandra Barucchieri

    Ciao Gloria,
    spero di non disturbare scrivendo in italiano, non sono molto a mio agio ad esprimermi in l’inglese, purtroppo!
    Sono arrivata qi per le vie traverse che la rete ci consente, da un argomento passi ad un altro ed un altro ed un altro ancora seguendo strane tracce che profumano di cose interessanti… e così eccomi qui…
    Ho trovato così “vero” quello che tu hai scritto in questo articolo, e molto “mie” le tue parole. Forse perché sono toscana anche io, forse perché il mio retroterra familiare e culturale è sempre stato aperto, curioso, “avanti”.
    Le disparità di genere esistono, e vanno combattute, ma io credo che l’obiettivo debba essere quello di fare in modo che ogni persona (uomo o donna che sia) possa avere la possibilità di esprimere se stessa nel modo migliore e possa scegliere come farlo. Nel rispetto delle differenze di genere. Io non vorrei essere un uomo, ma sono felice di poter esprimere il mio modo di essere con le stesse possibilità di uomo, portando ovunque quelle peculiarità che derivano dal mio essere donna…
    Vabbè… che giri di parole! :-)
    Comunque grazie per questa occasione di riflessione, e a presto!

    Alessandra

    • Ciao Alessandra, non disturbi affatto, anzi! Finalmente un po’ dell’idioma nativo! :) Mi fa piacere che anche la tua esperienza sia simile alla mia: allora non sono pazza! :)

      For the readers who cannot read Italian, Alessandra agrees with my words, which, she says, she feels “her very own”. She agrees also that gender equality needs to be attained but at the same time that what matters is that women have a choice and not that differences are canceled.

      Grazie!

  5. As someone who spends a lot of time thinking, writing and reading about this very issue, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate reading your perspective on it. And since I represent an outsider, critical voice I wish to clarify and respond to some of the things you have brought up in this post. I wholeheartedly agree that many of the difficulties Italian women face are worldwide problems. But studies like the Global Gender Gap Report that you refer to demonstrate that these “universal” issues are especially problematic in Italy. I am delighted to hear that you and so many women you know are doing so well. But a great many other women in Italy are not. You say you’re not sure how women can be discriminated against when it comes to salaries. But consider industries that are vastly dominated by women: domestic work, childcare and elder-care, whose workers do intensely difficult work for very little pay. You say that women naturally participate less in certain fields and you see this already in the gender make-up of university classes. I suspect however that this situation would be very different if we (as parents, as a society, as a culture) didn’t teach our girls from SO early on (consciously or not) that being pretty is more important than being smart. And yes, indeed, this is another “universal” problem. But one that is more intense and entrenched here than in many other Western countries, for various cultural-historical reasons. I have a lot of trouble believing that Italian women are generally OK with this. I totally agree with you that women should not feel the pressure to do the same things as men, absolutely! The problem is precisely that roles and tasks that are traditionally “feminine” are economically punished, especially compared to traditionally masculine pursuits. Our Western capitalist economies are built on the backs of labouring women who work for free, and again, I would say that is especially the case in Italy. Just think of the millions of nonne who pick up the slack for the lack of government-supported early daycare, to name just one example. Yes, of course, the family support in Italy is a beautiful thing, and those nonne more often than not will in turn be cared for in the homes of their families rather than put into nursing homes. But who do you think takes up the unpaid work of caring for *them*? On a more hopeful note, I would like to think you’re right that Italian men will respond to new expectations. My husband has! As have many other Italian men that I know. I think things are changing incrementally. However. The alarmingly high rates of domestic violence in Italy is just one fact that reminds us there is a LOT that still needs to change culturally if Italians really want to support and respect women. Yes, we must respect women who choose to take on more traditional roles, absolutely. But don’t you think it’s also unacceptable that any women feels unable to choose otherwise?
    Phew! Sorry to have taken up so much space here, but you obviously touched a nerve. Again, thanks for the stimulating discussion!

    • Since I prefer concentrating on the possibility of a brighter future, I must link to a wonderful initiative happening this weekend in Florence, to encourage young women in the sciences and in business: http://donne.it.msn.com/lanuvolarosa/la-nuvola-rosa.

    • Hi Michelle, thank you so very much for a) reading my blog, and b) taking the time to respond. One of the other articles I had read was yours! :)
      I also would like to make sure it is clear that I am not stating that there are no issues. Not at all. Most of the issues though seem to me quite universal and also the result of an analysis which does not take into account women’s individual preferences which are as hard to fight (or change) than sexist attitudes.

      “You say you’re not sure how women can be discriminated against when it comes to salaries. But consider industries that are vastly dominated by women: domestic work, childcare and elder-care, whose workers do intensely difficult work for very little pay.”

      I don’t think it is only a matter of jobs for women or for men, but of types of jobs. Agricultural workers (mostly men) are equally underpaid (who isn’t in Italy?). And I should also add that this is a country where having a job, even though underpaid, is not a given. A job at the McDonald’s counter is considered a great opportunity. I see more and more men cleaning houses, working as nurses, etc, that is trying to get one of the jobs which are traditionally underpaid because nobody wants them. True that in most cases it is women who occupy those positions but maybe it is because in the past theirs would be the second income in the family, so they would get whatever they could find even if not extremely good. I think the difference today is more between Italian and non-Italian workers than between men and women.

      Just as an aside, I would like to say that the cleaning lady who cleans our apartments is paid 17 euros per hour and as a researcher with a PhD I get 13,80 euros per hour to teach…

      You say that women naturally participate less in certain fields and you see this already in the gender make-up of university classes. I suspect however that this situation would be very different if we (as parents, as a society, as a culture) didn’t teach our girls from SO early on (consciously or not) that being pretty is more important than being smart.

      I don’t think that studying philosophy or art history is a prerogative of less smart people… I think it is a common preference for girls to be more into humanities than numbers. We should encourage more kids to go into sciences, but you cannot force them. Universities are open here (no selection to get in except for medical degrees and other degrees where you need labs) so the choice to study Italian literature instead of Physics is not a result of “selection”. In fact, girls usually have better results in school across subjects, but they naturally “lean” towards less technical stuff.

      As for being pretty vs. being smart, well, I guess they are equally important. But it cannot be the only reason that keeps women “behind”, because the world is full of ugly people… they cannot be relying on their looks alone! LOL

      I agree with you that women might not be ok with this. That’s why I said that my perspective must be distorted somehow. I do not know anybody who has gender issues of this kind, but I am sure there are plenty of women who would say otherwise.

      Our Western capitalist economies are built on the backs of labouring women who work for free, and again, I would say that is especially the case in Italy. Just think of the millions of nonne who pick up the slack for the lack of government-supported early daycare, to name just one example. Yes, of course, the family support in Italy is a beautiful thing, and those nonne more often than not will in turn be cared for in the homes of their families rather than put into nursing homes. But who do you think takes up the unpaid work of caring for *them*?

      This is so cultural specific Michelle. I agree that the state should help mothers more. Again, Pisa where we live, is the third city in Italy for availability of Asili Nido… So getting help is not really much trouble. But I would certainly prefer my child to spend more time with my parents if they were here. Also I am not sure who else should take care of kids and the elderly if not the other members of the family and for free… I am not sure I understand your point, really. In this case, it is society that is going in a funny direction where we need external help to raise our children and care for the members of our family rather than the other way round. The family is the nucleus where blood relations are developed and catered for, the fact that we need a baby-sitter, or a daycare or a nursing home is not progress… if anything it is the opposite. But that is my very personal view.

      You find me totally and absolutely in agreement with the horror for violence on women. We hear horror stories way too often. (But again, isn’t it the case everywhere?) I absolutely agree that this is something that needs to be fought with the utmost strength and severity.

      Yes, we must respect women who choose to take on more traditional roles, absolutely. But don’t you think it’s also unacceptable that any women feels unable to choose otherwise?

      Of course it is. Absolutely. My experience though is that it is not so common where I live that that is the case. I am sure it is still way too common in Italy and elsewhere, but personally I cannot think of a single case. I am very lucky in that sense.

      Phew! Sorry to have taken up so much space here, but you obviously touched a nerve. Again, thanks for the stimulating discussion!

      Thank you! And you are always always welcome back! Also anything you want to add is more than welcome! I am in no way assuming my experience is correct or universal. By no means.

    • Dang, Michelle–you have articulated the matter so incredibly well and thoroughly. Much better than I could eve have done.

      Being able to choose, and being able to “ask” Italian men to step up to the plate (as Gloria suggests) all comes down to empowerment, which is in turn something fomented and fostered in the surrounding culture. And this is where the Gender Inequality Index and Gender Gap reports pinpoint the problem.

      Brava!

  6. Stats are certainly useful in providing an outline of a certain situation but are by no means representative of reality. Look at what happens with political elections: there’s plenty data in favor of a candidate and eventually people will vote a different one.

    I think it’s very difficult to encapsulate the Italian reality with stats.

    Italian women are fierce and have very much their destiny in their hands. They know what they want and indeed work very hard for it. Italian men below 45 are scared of their women’ independence and try to keep them down or to avoid them. I know many men in this age range who consider themselves to be inadequate to women’s expectations. I think this is one reason for the violence. I think there is a huge cultural crisis in our country where women are going ahead and men are going backwards.

    Urban life and country life are also radically different in this. In the countryside young women consider it still normal to do the house chores and babisit both children and husbands. They get to iron their shirts but their relations are not so based on personal achievement, more on the family’s achievements. Do they really have worse lives than professional women in the city with their yoga sessions, high hills and traffic jams? I don’t know. I know many urban people who are so drugged by tranquillizers that can’t even operate a toaster in the morning. And they are not only Italian.

    In another life I have been in science for over 10 years, lived in many countries and every important project has always been discussed by a men group around a beer, not at the business meetings. Not an Italian in sight.

    I lived in The Netherlands, one of the paradises of equality. Well, try to have a baby and leave your scientific career for 5 years to raise the child. Yes, your husband can also do it. No matter who does it, if you live a career for 5 years you are finished, you are out.

    I can go on with examples, but in the end the reality is that it’s not always so easy to define who is behind and who is ahead. Often those who have better economies feel ahead. In reality this is not always the case.

  7. Liza

    I am coming to the discussion of “women in Italy” but I have to say that my stays in Florence – brief – but longer than the average tourist – have introduced me to the best kind of women. My friends who are: a graphic designer, an architect, a proprietor of a language school, an engineer, a language instructor, and two receptionists all seem to be very balanced personalities. They are not women trying to be men, as it seems the status-quo of feminism seems to push us as women to be. I am tired of hearing feminists constantly undervalue the importance and significance of caring for other human beings we love and the environments we live in as unimportant or insignificant.

    In the U.S. people are not valued. For over 50 years more important to have two jobs and lots of stuff than it is to care for your own children and parents. People are disposable. Children of parents that preferred to work overtime to buy things rather than spend time with their children end up farming their parents off to some home, but before that the children often move thousands of miles away and see their parents on holidays a couple times a year, possibly. So how is this an advancement for women or anyone else – it is only advancement in consumerism. Women are the best at keeping families and communities together, we are more socially adept and empathetic to others needs generally. What we need is not to push for a fake feminism that discredits the unique strengths of women only to encourage women to join the ratrace – the very ratrace that has destroyed the world economy.

    People who have money, by the way, usually do what feels the best to them, the most natural … and guess what – women in the U.S. who have enough money NOT to work, generally prefer to stay home and deal with matters concerning their home and their children and they end up living like the “oppressed” Italian women. The U.S. doesn’t care anymore for its women than Italy does – it is obvious from the media, and how much anger men have toward women there. I have yet to encounter ANY sort of anger/hatred toward women from any Italian man, from boyfriend, friends, instructors, cashiers, salesmen, in the media, as I have encountered in the U.S. Italian women benefit from the fact that most Italian men love their Mammas and Nonnas dearly, and in the emotional continuum they have a sweet spot for women. Not so for American women, mothers are often demonized in the culture, which would be unthinkable in Italy.

    Women in the U.S. are not valued or adored, they are just another paycheck coming to the house that also happen to be a sex object.

    • Thank you very much for your comment Liza!

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