When Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi spotted Emma Marcegaglia, the head of Italy’s main business lobby, in an audience of top executives last month, he introduced her from the podium as a “good-looking chick.”
Marcegaglia, 45, is the first female to serve as president of the Confindustria business group in its 101-year history. She told reporters at the Rome event that she didn’t mind being told she was attractive “as long as it wasn’t an excuse not to carry out the important economic reforms we ask for.”
The plight of women in Italy, which trails the rest of Europe in almost every indicator of gender equality, has come under scrutiny amid Berlusconi’s sex scandals and prostitution trial. Legislation from his party that would force companies to appoint women to a third of board seats will be debated this week in the Senate as Italy marks Women’s Day today.
“This is the first bill of its kind and if passed, will be an historic step for Italy,” said Lella Golfo, 69, the lawmaker in the premier’s People of Liberty party who crafted the proposal. The center-left opposition, which created the post of minister of equal opportunities in 1996, never proposed similar legislation when it was in government, she said in an interview.
Italy ranked 74th out of 134 countries in a World Economic Forum Gender Gap Index, behind Malawi and Kazakhstan. With the exception of Malta, Italy has the lowest ratio of working women in the European Union, 46 percent. As few as 6 percent of board directors are women, compared with twice as many in the U.K. and 32 percent in Norway, according to a 2010 report by management consultants at McKinsey & Co.
Addressing the issue of women in Italy is “difficult given the complete lack of both awareness of the problem and the will to do anything about it, not only in the ruling class but also among the vast majority of Italians,” said Emma Bonino, a former minister for European Affairs who led campaigns in the 1970s to legalize abortion and divorce.
In Italy, 21 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 29 are unemployed compared with 18 percent for men of the same age group, according to data released today by statistics institute Istat. Three times as many women work part-time compared with men, and almost two-thirds of those women would rather work full time, Istat said.
Signs are increasing that women in Italy, which the British writer Tobias Jones dubbed “the land that feminism forgot,” are becoming more vocal. Hundreds of thousands rallied last month across Italy to protest Berlusconi’s perceived sexism. Demanding better treatment, they waved banners that read “If not now, then when?”
Throughout Berlusconi’s 17-year political career, he has considered jokes on women fair game and never apologized when they fell flat or drew criticism. In 2009, commenting on the case of a 25-year-old woman who was raped on New Year’s Eve, he quipped that with so many good-looking Italian women, it would be impossible to protect them all from assault.
“If Italy hadn’t had Berlusconi, the female emancipation movement that peaked in the 1970s wouldn’t have come to such a grinding halt,” Rosy Bindi, a former health minister and possible opposition candidate for premier, said in a telephone interview on March 3. “Women share some of the blame for this. Too many people don’t react and some women can’t fathom that you don’t get things handed over for free.”
Petition to Resign
The opposition Democratic Party today began collecting signatures in Rome on a petition that calls on Berlusconi to resign. Bindi is due to personally deliver the document to the prime minister’s office.
Elsewhere in Europe, governments have quotas to improve the balance of female representation in corporate management. Norway was first in 2003 to enforce female minimum representation. Spain followed in 2007, and France plans to impose a 40 percent quota by 2016 for its 2,500 biggest companies.
“Italians don’t recognize that without including and supporting women in the workforce, the country cannot grow,” said Alessandra Perrazzelli, a lawyer and head of international regulatory and antitrust affairs at bank Intesa Sanpaolo SpA. (ISP) “It’s like playing soccer with half the team.”
Under the bill by Golfo, who says it may be approved by the end of this month, Italian companies that fail to hire women directors would face fines of as much as 1 million euros ($1.4 million). A proposal in 2006 to set quotas for parliamentary candidates elapsed at the end of the legislature.
Italian women in powerful posts include Marcegaglia, who runs a family steel business; Marina Berlusconi, chairwoman of her father’s holding Fininvest SpA; and Monica Mondardini, who has overseen a 33 percent share gain since taking over as chief executive officer of Gruppo Editoriale L’Espresso SpA (ES) in January 2009. Marina Berlusconi, the premier’s oldest daughter, is 12th on Fortune’s annual list of most-powerful businesswomen -- the only Italian on it.
The gender gap is pronounced in Italian politics. A mere 21 percent of the 630-person lower house of parliament is composed of women. That compares with 33 percent in Germany and 37 percent in Spain.
With elections looming in 2013, if not sooner, the idea of a woman leading the country is gaining traction. Former Prime Minister Romano Prodi, the only candidate to defeat Berlusconi, supports Bindi, saying on March 1 that the timing is right for a female premier. Berlusconi once called Bindi “more beautiful than intelligent,” to which she replied: “I’m not one of the women at your disposal.”
Berlusconi, 74, stands trial April 6 on charges he paid for sex with a minor and abused his power to cover his tracks. Three female judges are set to pass verdict on the premier, who once advised a female graduate looking for work to “try and marry a millionaire.”