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.

When Greta Lauri was in college, she thought that by playing by the rules she could achieve what she considered a normal life: a family and a fulfilling job using her degree in foreign languages.

Then she got married and went through a frustrating job search. She eventually landed a temporary job, but when she had her first child, her contract wasn’t renewed. Later, she was hired as a teacher of Italian as a second language, but the recession hit, and her hours were cut back. When she had her second child, her position wasn’t extended, again leaving her without maternity benefits. Now, in her early 30s, she’s out of work.

Ms. Lauri's story is a familiar one among Italy's working women. Although all Italians have been feeling the effects of Europe's economic crisis, the recession has amplified the structural problems plaguing Italy’s female workers, according to Istat, Italy’s statistics bureau. As a result, not only have recent trends narrowing the traditional gap between female and male employment stopped, but women are increasingly forced into temporary positions and they feel greater, cultural burdens in the home, where they are primary caregivers in the absence of effective government policies to support the family.

Disproportionate economic hardship

Although chronically low, the women’s employment rate had been on a gradual upswing in recent decades, says Paola Profeta, an economics professor at Bocconi University in Milan. But with the recession, that trend stopped.

“In Italy, the crisis has had a stronger impact on women than on men,” says Professor Profeta. “Women suffered more.”

Now, Italy’s female employment rate, at 46 percent, is among the lowest in the European Union – and is even lower in the country's south, where the rate is only 30 percent. In addition, women’s chances of being employed decrease with the number of children they have.

The disparity is particularly evident in the country's industrial sector, where between 2008 and 2009, women lost their jobs at a rate twice as high as male workers, according to Istat.

Fulvia De Brasi was one of those affected. In 2009, she was put into "cassa integrazione,” a wage-subsidy program in which workers receive reduced compensation, when the machinery company where she had worked for 20 years suffered from the crisis.

She now lives on 900 to 950 euros ($1,180 to 1,250) a month, depending on how many hours she’s able to work. She pays a monthly rent of 500 euros ($656).

Ms. De Brasi can get by because she sometimes moonlights as a cleaner for her relatives, she says. “I would have never thought I would have fallen as low as this as a person, from a socioeconomic point of view.”

Poorer quality jobs

According to Istat, the recession also had a negative affect on the quality of the jobs held by women, boosting low-skilled and part-time jobs, as well as increasing women’s underemployment.

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.

“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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