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Europe's recession puts Italian women's workplace gains on ice

Although chronically low, the employment rate for women in Italy had been on a gradual upswing in recent decades. But with the recession, that trend stopped.

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Since women are overrepresented in temporary jobs, which were the first to be slashed during the recession, they typically suffered more, says Claudia Olivetti, a professor of economics at Boston University.

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“A 30-year-old woman with a college degree is more likely to get a temporary contract than a male with the same characteristics,” Professor Olivetti says.

Giulia Barbieri has a graduate degree in art history. After a couple of internships and a collaboration with a cultural events association, she got a temporary contract as a phone operator at an appointment scheduling center in the Bologna health-care system.

While sometimes frustrating and unrelated to her studies and interests, it was the first normal job – with social security benefits and meal vouchers – she had ever had. Then, after a little more than a year she found herself looking for a job again after her contract wasn’t renewed.

For now, she’s living off her savings while attending a class in digital film restoration that she hopes could lead to a job.

Greater family pressures

In the recession, the challenges traditionally faced by Italian working mothers have become more pressing, particularly the need to juggle between work and their responsibilities as primary family caregivers in the absence of effective family policies, Profeta says.

The crisis drained resources away from families, forcing women to keep doing what they did, only with fewer means and more uncertainty, she explains. In addition, employers – especially small and medium-size companies – often view women with suspicion because they overestimate the cost of maternity leaves.

“There is a cultural element in that,” Profeta says.

When Lauri got married soon after graduating from college, she was eager to become economically independent. But prospective employers would ask her if she had a husband and often looked at her with a smirk when they found out that she did, as they were afraid she planned on having children, she says.

“All right, if I can’t invest on this, then I should focus on building a family,” she says she thought back then, especially since she felt her chances of landing a permanent job were already meager, given that she was married.

But it wasn’t an easy choice, even if her family has been able to count on her husband’s steady income.

“The lack of work stability has been a huge shortcoming for me,” says Lauri, who feels frustrated about giving up her passions.

Now she plans to look for a job as a foreign language teacher in the national school system – likely a temporary one, but with more contract guarantees than the jobs she has had so far.

But she says, she can’t hope to find work in the private sector. She says that at 32 – and with two children – employers would say she’s too old.

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