The Italian Gender Gap

Rather than subscribing to any particular ideology, I like to think that I can rely on my common sense to guide me. As a great man once said, “A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself.” Now, the problem is that I wasn’t blessed with an abundance of common sense and it does occasionally take a sharp smack across the head for me to understand the various sides of an issue. My wife, for example, would count herself as strongly feminist because this is an issue that obviously effected her and she thought about a lot. I, on the other hand, just never gave much thought to gender and sexism and thought the world had pretty much solved that issue. I guess that’s a privilege of being born with a penis. This has changed now (not the penis part though – I still have a huge mickey). I’ve read my Simone de Beauvoir.

The point is, it took me a while to come around to being able to understand the various arguments in the sexism debate, but I got there in the end. Living in Italy definitely helped. From the philandering Prime Minister spashed across the headlines to the casual sexism you see in the street, it’s nearly impossible to miss.

Actually, it’s kind of worrying how deep-seated the gender gap is in this country. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, Italy ranks 67th out of 130 countries in terms of the gap between men and women. I’ll just say that again, because this number floored me: 67th. This puts it behind places like Israel and Mongolia and far behind the other major European countries like France (15), Spain (17) and the United Kingdom (13).

Although, to be fair, this beats its 2007 ranking of 84th. Improvements are being made. You can even feel it. I guess it’s most obvious in the slow backlash against the behaviour of Silvio Berlusconi. The various scandals didn’t receive nearly as much media coverage in this country as they did in the international press, no doubt helped by the fact that Berlusconi owns a large part of the media here. But the very public denouncement by his wife and her filing for divorce was pretty hard to miss. During the recent G8 summit which took place in L’Aquila, there was a call made by female Italian academics asking the wives of the leaders to boycott the summit (although they didn’t exactly explain what they wanted Angela Merkel’s husband to do). And this is having an effect. For the first time since taking office in May of last year, Berlusconi’s approval rating dropped below 50%. A small amount, sure, but still significant, given the way that many Italians worship him as a hero, a self-made man (although with hair that bad, I’d say he’s all thumbs – ZING! TAKE THAT, BERLUSCONI). Even the Catholic Church has expressed concern at his behaviour, saying “people have understood the unease, the mortification, the suffering that such an arrogant abandonment of a sober style has caused us.”

Although it doesn’t help anyone when you get ditzy celbutards like Celia Walden wading into the situation and muddying the waters. In her article, “Someone like Silvio Berlusconi will always pinch my bottom,” she talks about the psychology of the Italian male, suggesting that institutional sexism is, if not entirely excusable, it is at least understandable. In fact, it’s almost adorable. I mean, after all, isn’t that what Italians are all about?

From when I was a student in Siena I have a strong memory of a man slowing his car down and throwing his wife, in the passenger seat, a sidelong glance before reaching out and giving my bottom a pinch. I didn’t know whether to abuse or salute him.

The new Gender Gap report is due out on October 29th. I’ll be interested to see what effect – if any – the past year has had on its ranking.