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Being Italian and a Woman These Days

Photo: Associazione Orlando/flickr

Italy is one of those countries where a lot of wild contradictions regarding gender, misfortune, and economic circumstance can occur simultaneously. Take the word “mignotta,” which is Roman dialect for “whore,” “bitch,” or “slut”—when referring to a woman. Or a gay man. Or a transsexual man. Or, for that matter, simply an untidy woman. But which originally, back in the Middle Ages, was an acronym referring to an abandoned child whose mother was unknown to the local authorities.

Nothing since that time has changed much in Italy, a country where it is still (a) not a good idea to be a woman, if you can possibly avoid it, and (b) a great place to be a woman, but only under special circumstances. Such as if you’re extremely beautiful, very young, and never met former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

On the bad news front: If you’re an Italian woman, you are likely to earn 14 percent less than men, according to a recently released report from that nation’s Labor Policy Conference—unless you’re an undereducated Italian woman, in which case you will likely earn 20 percent less than your undereducated male counterparts. Yes, as a woman you are likely to escape the fate of the undereducated (more Italian women graduate from university than men, and with better grades). But only one in two women is rewarded for her hard work and intelligence with a paid job.

And even if you do get a paid job on graduating, once you have children, you have a 25 percent likelihood of quitting it. This is not because Italian women prefer vacuuming and diaper-changing to remunerated work, but because Italian men tend to believe that child rearing and housework are exclusively the realm of mothers, and mothers have figured out that there are only so many hours in a day.

Price tag on Italy's women? Photo: Alain Rossi/flickr

Now that all of Italy has been thrown into a morass of euro anxiety, with more than $40 billion in tax increases planned by its new government, along with sharp spending cuts and pension overhauls, here’s some more interesting news for women: Italy’s new prime minister, Mario Monti, intends to grant gender equality in one area.

For years, women with low paychecks, lots of housework, and indolent husbands have consoled themselves with the gold at the end of the rainbow. Retirement at 60 has been a traditional Italian ladies’ privilege—six years earlier than retirement for the better paid men by whose sides those women have worked. By 2018, Monti promises, all that will change: retirement for both sexes will be at age 66.

Oh—and another so-called improvement, also partly aimed at women. The Italian government has promised billions in new stimulus measures. Companies that hire women and young workers in large quantities, it promises, can receive massive tax breaks. That sounds nice. At first.

But consider this: early this year, the European Commission announced that country laws allowing tax breaks for certain companies are illegal and break European competition laws. In the instance cited by the EU in January, the country practicing illegal measures was Germany, which was permitting tax breaks for companies in financial trouble. Germany was ordered not simply to cease and desist in giving preferential tax treatment, but to retrieve the money owed the German government from those companies.

And my suspicion is that the same goes for Italian companies that receive tax breaks just for hiring women. A nice goal, to be sure, and quite an innovative one for Italy. But way too innovative for the EU.

This is a cross-post from World Affairs.