MILAN — Women are overwhelmingly on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic. And yet, in Italy, when it comes to engineering an exit from lockdown, they’ve had a hard time getting heard.
Women make up two-thirds of Italy’s health workers, 80 percent of cashiers in supermarkets, 90 percent of home care workers and nearly 82 percent of teachers. But very few have a seat at the table where key decisions are being made about the policies to navigate the country’s reopening.
Italy is still in the hands of a “boys’ club,” Emma Bonino, one of 16 senators who filed a motion calling for the government to increase female representation in its working groups, told POLITICO. “Men pass power from hand to hand in a closed circle.”
Following a month of protests and public outcry — including the social media campaign “Dateci Voce” (Give us voice) — Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte appeared to take the criticism to heart and pushed for more women to be appointed to the expert groups advising the government.
Five new women will join the Vittorio Colao task force charged with designing Italy’s roadmap out of the crisis. The previously all-male scientific committee managing the emergency response will see six female experts join its ranks.
Is it too little, too late? As Italy comes out from under lockdown, POLITICO asked women from across sectors what they would do differently if they were involved in designing the government’s deconfinement strategy.
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Orna Serio, middle school teacher, Milan
Before February 23, Orna Serio had never heard of Zoom. When Italy’s schools closed, she had to reinvent how she did her job — one she’s done for 30 years.
To her, a major blind spot of the current recovery plan is the uncertainty surrounding kids’ futures. Despite teachers’ best efforts, their education has been seriously interrupted.
Serio, who is a mother of three, knows how difficult it can be to keep up with kids’ school work. She sees the effort that her students’ families are putting in from behind the screen, but worries that it’s not a long-term solution.
Children from lower socio-economic backgrounds are at particular risk of getting lost in the system, according to Serio, and the government should be looking at how to get them the proper tools.
“It takes even more funding to provide families in need with computers and tablets to follow lessons online,” she said. “Despite initial aid, many students have been left out.”
The government also needs to more clearly understand the link between the reopening of schools for kids and the ability of their parents to get back to work, according to Serio.
Italy’s education minister has suggested schools could reopen again in September, with a mix of in-person classes and online learning. But the lack of clarity on what the new arrangement will look like has left many parents wondering how they will go back to work if their kids aren’t in school all day.
In many families, deprived by the coronavirus of being able to rely on grandparents, the burden of child care will fall to women, who are still most often the primary caregivers in Italy, exacerbating existing inequalities.
“I understand the difficulties of having to manage a historical moment like this, but it seems like we are being driven with one eye shut, with no long-term project in sight,” Serio said. “At some point you have to choose a path.”
Giovanna Iannantuoni, dean of Università Bicocca, Milan
Giovanna Iannantuoni, one of only five female university deans in Italy, knows exactly what she would have said, had she been asked to contribute to the debate.
“I would have recommended using the university laboratories to do mass swab testing and make serological kits for the population, because testing is essential,” she said. “Our laboratories were never called on.”
Now that tests are more widely available, Università Bicocca is the first university in Italy to test all of its employees — more than 2,000 people.
“I went out of my way to start ‘Phase Two’ by making those who work with me safe,” said Iannantuoni. “A woman’s approach? Well, I’m proud of it. It’s a way of taking care of our community and [protecting] others from unnecessary risks.”
“We need to rethink the social model in which we live” — Giovanna Iannantuoni
Excluding women from discussions on how to move the country out of lockdown — and what life will look like on the other side — makes no sense, said Iannantuoni, who said she hopes politicians will put the well-being of citizens at the center of the debate.
“Starting at my university, I would like to build workplaces with flexible policies, capable of reconciling working life with private life,” she said.
“We need to rethink the social model in which we live,” she added. “It takes courage to unhinge cultural assumptions, and courage is often a woman’s virtue.”
Emanuela Girardi, founder of the nonprofit Pop AI, Turin
Emanuela Girardi became one of the main promoters of the “Dateci Voce” initiative when she realized the government would not notice the absence of women’s perspectives unless it was confronted with its own biases.
“It all started in a chat with some girlfriends,” said Girardi, an artificial intelligence expert who is also a mother of three. “After the announcement of the task force dedicated to rethinking the future of Italy, for the umpteenth time in this emergency it was clear to us that our politicians do not consider women.”
A major issue that has been ignored, she said, is the fact that Italy has one of the lowest rates of female employment in Europe — 50 percent. That means that, under the government’s new measures, 72 percent of the approximately 4 million people returning to work in this next phase of lockdown are men.
“They can go back to work because at home they have a wife, a partner, that takes care of the children,” said Girardi.
Italy needs to be making it possible for women to work outside the home, she said. Those in power have to understand that “gender equality makes sense, it increases the GDP of the country and contributes to the development of the economy.”
To advance that goal, the government should also introduce legislation to ensure gender balance in institutions and expert groups that design legislation, said Girardi, who is a member of the ministry of economic development’s expert group on artificial intelligence.
Although she has “always been against ‘pink quotas,’” Girardi said she now thinks they may be the only way to make tangible progress in a “male system” and make sure women are heard.
Paola Pedrini, general practitioner, Bergamo
Although Paola Pedrini represents family doctors in the region of Lombardy — the most severely affected by the outbreak — the government didn’t seem particularly interested in her insight on the situation, she said.
“Nobody ever called me from the government to ask me for information, only the mayor of Milan, Beppe Sala, did once,” said Pedrini, the Italian Federation of General Practitioners’ sole female regional director among 19 men.
She said she would have pushed the issue of lacking personal protective equipment in hospitals, advised against clogging emergency rooms and emphasized the need for more “at home” diagnostic tools. Having a team of people equipped to carry out tests outside hospitals and advise people on self-isolating would undoubtedly have saved lives, she added.
Instead of listening to doctors, the government “listened to the entrepreneurs,” who resisted turning cities like Bergamo into “red zones,” she said.
If she was involved in current discussions, she would advise against moving into the next phase of lockdown at all.
“We are not able to immediately isolate a suspected case and that person’s close contacts, because testing is only done at the hospital,” she said. “General practitioners also still lack protective equipment, which as of now is still being procured by donations.”
Pedrini also said she wished the government understood the importance of giving people clear information.
When the number of hospital cases appeared to have decreased, the government called it good news, ignoring the fact that the numbers had fallen because hospitals were full and they no longer took in patients — meaning COVID-19 sufferers were left at home, sometimes in critical condition.
“Even now, the situation that is communicated is not realistic. Those who have mild symptoms and stay at home are not calculated in the numbers, so we do not yet have a reliable figure,” she cautioned. “I would have advised that letting people know how things really are was important to earn people’s trust.”
Stefania, cashier, Milan
Since the emergency began, Stefania, who works at the checkout of a supermarket in Milan, has hardly taken off her blue uniform.
“It’s better now, but in the beginning it was hell,” she said. “We were without masks or visors. People were storming supermarkets, and no one sanitized the spaces.”
She wants the government to pay greater attention to essential workers like her and her husband, who also works in a supermarket. Essential workers, she said, should be given the right protective equipment and be systematically tested if they’re expected to keep working while others self-isolate.
The government’s failure to do so puts people like Stefania “in a risky position, both for ourselves and our families,” she said.
Stefania, who asked to remain anonymous because she is afraid of losing her job, also stressed the need for more support for families like hers who are struggling to find child care solutions while they work.
The government’s “babysitter bonus” — a monthly €600 check given to each family — is helpful, but not nearly enough, she said. On days when she and her husband had to work long shifts, they had to pay a neighbor to look after their 7-year-old son for 12 hours.
She also wishes she could spend more time with her son, and help him with his homework, without sacrificing the income they need. “I feel guilty, but we need the €1,000 I earn a month, otherwise we would not be able to pay the rent, the expenses, and everything else.”
Her family is only getting by thanks to the help of the people around her, she said. “I, as a woman and a mother, feel abandoned by the state.”
Laura Boldrini, senator, Rome
For Laura Boldrini, the epidemic has highlighted an unbearable situation: Fifty-one percent of the population is still excluded from the political debate.
In the midst of an epidemic, that means that discussions over how to handle the emergency and what comes next are inevitably skewed according to what men consider important, making these plans less effective than they could be.
Boldrini, who is one of the senators to have called for more female involvement in lockdown discussions, is tired of hearing stories of women who have been forced to give up their jobs or whose partners don’t help with child care, she said.
She is worried that failing to address the specific challenges women are facing during the pandemic will exacerbate current inequalities. “We must stem the damage so it does not become an accepted construct,” she said.
She wants politicians involved in the current discussions to consider this an opportunity to build “a more contemporary and just society” — one where child care can be shared equally between women and men and families are supported by generous welfare programs that free both parents up to work.
“These are structural changes that start from politics,” she said. With only men at the top, though, there’s a real possibility that the government’s new measures set society back, she added. “We cannot miss this opportunity.”