MILAN — Italy has never been a country for working women. And as it’s done for so many things, the coronavirus has only made things worse.
With few options for affordable public child care, many new mothers find that they can’t return to work after taking maternity leave. Or that when they do, a male-dominated work culture that doesn’t allow for flexible hours means they can’t keep up with their employer’s demands.
According to new data by the national labor watchdog (INL), some 37,600 women with children submitted voluntary resignations in 2019, compared with just over 13,900 fathers, citing the difficulty of “reconciling employment with care needs” as the main cause for their decision.
That was before the coronavirus pandemic shut schools and threw family life into chaos, with responsibility for juggling child care and professional demands falling mostly on mothers.
"The lockdown has had very serious consequences on the women who have found themselves managing, often on their own, child care, school, work and the home," said Miriam Tola, a professor and researcher at the University of Lausanne and a member of the Italian feminist group Non una di meno (“Not one less”).
This year, she predicted, the number of women forced to leave work will almost certainly surge.
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Italy doesn’t make it easy to reconcile working life with raising children.
Before Chiara, an employee at a communications agency who asked to remain anonymous, went on maternity leave, she had been promised a promotion and a raise. When she returned, those were no longer on the table.
“’How dare you ask for your promotion after you went on maternity leave,’ they told me. I immediately understood I was no longer welcome,” she said.
And so, only a month after her return, she left her job "because I could no longer manage family and work life."
To countless women across the country, Chiara’s story is all too familiar.
Giulia Matzè said she felt she had no choice but to leave a job where she had worked for 10 years when she had her second child.
“With a distant family and a disabled mother-in-law, I preferred to give up,” she said. “There are no support services or options for flexible work. Either you rely on your family or you give your salary to the babysitter.”
The pandemic has highlighted just how high the burden is on working women.
According to the latest data from Italy’s national statistics institute (Istat), women between 25 and 44 carry out about 70 percent of care work in families. "The management and sharing of care is still unevenly distributed," said Tola.
But because women are also overrepresented in jobs termed essential during the pandemic — in hospitals, sanitation services, schools and shops — and where remote working is not an option, they were also more likely to have to keep working as the virus ravaged the country.
According to data from the Fondazione Studi Consulenti del Lavoro, mothers with jobs have worked more than fathers with jobs over the past few months. Out of 100 working women with one or more children under the age of 15, a large majority — 74 percent — have kept working outside and inside the home during the pandemic, compared with 66 percent for men.
They were also more likely to get sick in the workplace: More than 70 percent of those who contracted the virus at work are female.
Simona, who lives in Milan and works as a cashier in a supermarket, said she had no choice but to continue working during the pandemic. "I have two children, seven and 10 years old, my husband works in construction and my salary is fundamental for our family."
"I was scared of getting myself and my family sick, some of my colleagues ended up in the hospital," she said. "It was frightening."
She is also the primary caregiver for her children, she added, and during the lockdown the amount of work that entailed doubled as she managed her kids’ remote school lessons and homework between shifts. Asked whether the burden was unfair, she laughed, saying "women are so used to it" and she has "no great hope" things will change easily.
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The lack of support for women in the workforce is a stark reminder that Italy doesn’t value its female professionals, said Laura Boldrini, the former leader of the Italian parliament’s lower chamber.
Italian children are typically cared for by their grandparents — a choice that is not only cultural but practical, and oftentimes, necessary.
A report by the NGO Save the Children found that only 1 in 10 Italian children are guaranteed a spot in public kindergartens, and in regions such as Calabria and Campania, access is almost nonexistent, with only 2.6 percent and 3.6 percent, respectively, of children attending a public daycare.
If the government wants to retain women in the workforce — something Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said would be key to getting the country back on track economically post crisis, and boosting the country’s falling birth rates — it needs to adopt policies that "promote employment and female entrepreneurship by helping new mothers raise their children,” said Boldrini.
That means making sure families have better access to affordable child care, and introducing financial incentives for women to return to work, such as a stipend for working mothers and a monthly allowance for children calculated according to the family’s income.
The Family Act, a bill put forward by Family Minister Elena Bonetti, takes up many of these proposals — including making a 10-day parental leave mandatory for fathers — and is slowly moving its way through a legislative process that could take up to two years. (The child allowance proposal is being treated separately and could go into effect before the end of 2020.)
Tola accused the government of being too generous during the crisis with major companies — such as Fiat Chrysler Automotive, which received a loan of €6,3 billion — while not doing enough to alleviate the financial stress on families.
A monthly stipend to families to help with child care — known as the “babysitter bonus” — was “too low,” she said. Initially just €600, the bonus was bumped up to €1,200 per family in May.
She also lamented the lack of clarity over the reopening of schools, which Education Minister Lucia Azzolina recently announced would happen on September 14. “For months, we had no answers,” she said. “And even today, there is no clear plan.”
Laws can help, said Boldrini, but Italy also needs a wholesale change of culture in the workplace — and at home.
“Many men still believe that everything that concerns care is a female affair — the children, the home management, the care of the elderly parents," she said. "They are profoundly wrong.”