Italy's end to employment discrimination has women crying foul

Italy has raised women's retirement age to match that of men. Many women says it's unfair in a culture where women who work also are responsible for housework and the care of family members.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Labor laws should not make any distinction based on gender: This may seem obvious in most democracies. Yet a public outcry arose when the Italian parliament recently ratified a new law ending discrimination in the retirement age between men and women – much of it from women's rights groups and labor unions.

Until now, female employees could retire at 60, five years earlier than their male counterparts – a double standard based on the consideration that women also take care of the housework and family. The European Commission found the rule illegal last year, and the government acted to bring Italy into compliance.

But not all women are happy about the change – underscoring how traditional ideas about gender roles have held surprisingly firm in Italy, both in raising children and looking after ailing parents.

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"I cannot imagine working until 65; there's simply a point where you've exhausted all your energies," says Stefania Zevi, a public high school teacher in her mid-50s. She says that working with teenagers is demanding for everybody, but the load becomes unbearable for middle-aged women, who often have to take care of older family members at home.

"Most of my female colleagues have at least one aging parent who is not self-sufficient," she says. "What are they supposed to do?"

Women carry the family workload

When it comes to family and home, the work lies largely on women's shoulders in Italy. According to the OECD, Italy has the biggest disparity among industrialized nations between male and female workloads at home. This may help explain why just 45 percent of Italian women work, a low figure compared with other Western European countries.

The newly approved law applies only to 3.5 million female government employees. But Italy's conservative government has vowed to extend this policy to the private sector soon.

"Finally, they're changing this ridiculous double standard," says Tonia Mastrobuoni, an economic expert for Il Riformista progressive daily. "It was so hypocritical to grant working women an earlier retirement as a compensation for all the discrimination they have to suffer.

"I find it particularly odd that unions and women's groups are defending the old system, based on the assumption the woman's primary duty is to take care of the house, even if she works outside," adds Ms. Mastrobuoni.

She argues that economic policy can help change the culture: "In Germany, they're strongly subsidizing fatherhood leaves, and this is convincing men to take care of their children."

Others defend the idea that female workers should be granted earlier retirement until equality is achieved: "I don't like either the way women are treated as the [family's] only caretaker," says Renata Polverini, head of the UGL workers' union.

But, she says, "before changing the pension system, the government should have improved services helping female workers, such as daycare for children and the elderly."

"I bet many women would be glad to work until they are 65, if they only were put in the position to do so," says Polverini.

Currently only 1 child in 10 finds a place in public daycare, making it difficult for mothers to work. Indeed among those who entered the workforce, a fifth drop out after giving birth to their first child, while more than half quit after having their second baby. This may also explain why Italy is a land of single children.

Whether it's about culture or the lack of services, some economists have linked Italy's inability to adapt to female employment to its low fertility rate of just 1.2 children per woman.

"Here everybody speaks about family values" argues Mastrobuoni. "But [all] Italy has got is a lot of empty nurseries and few women at the workplace."

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