Women Leaders Index Gender Equality Case Study: Italy

By on 05/09/2017 | Updated on 20/02/2018

Every country has a different story to tell on women leaders in the civil service. Interviewing experts on the findings of our Women Leaders Index – which tracks the proportion of female senior civil servants, national politicians and business leaders in G20 and EU member states – we’ve examined the agenda’s achievements and the remaining obstacles in 11 national case studies

Italy is one of only two G20 countries to have seen a fall in the proportion of women in its top civil service jobs this year. And if we consider its overall progress since 2013 – or, indeed, since 2007 in the EU table – it’s clear that forward progress has only ever been faltering.

Italy started well above the average of the other countries in its group of seven; but as the other nations have made progress, Italy has fallen below the average of its peer group.

Whilst the middle seven G20 nations have, on average, shown faster movement towards gender parity than the top or bottom groups, Italy’s progress went into reverse last year – and the country has never matched the average progress within that middle group.

According to the European Gender Equality Index, Italy has the lowest level of gender equality in the EU. Female civil servants aspiring to leadership positions have few role models; it was 30 years after the 1946 foundation of the republic that the first female minister was appointed, and the country has never had a woman president or prime minister.

Yet as many women as men join the civil service every year, according to Edoardo Ongaro, Professor of Public Management at the UK’s Open Universit and President of the European Group for Public Administration.  So why don’t they make it to the uppermost ranks?

Ongaro says that there are some basic structural features of Italian public service that help to explain the imbalance. When a graduate wins the public competition to join the civil service, he says, they join “the ranks of the state technically forever; for the rest of their life”. And because the “Anglo-American model of public sector hiring and firing is not the Continental and certainly not the Italian way”, staff turnover is very low.

It’s also extremely difficult to sack or demote civil servants. “You can’t remove people, you can’t strip them of their grades, and since the mid-‘90s there has been a freeze on hiring,” comments Ongaro. “The public sector workforce has gone down from 3.5 million to three million.

“So you’ve frozen hiring, you can’t fire anyone, you just have to wait for people to retire; and Italians tend to retire later than many other countries. To change the situation, you need time intervals of decades. How on earth can you be effective in a policy to rebalance the gender mix with those constraints?”

The problem for women is compounded by child-rearing, Ongaro says. Italy has one of the longest compulsory statutory maternity leave entitlements in Europe – five months – and mothers can, if they wish, take a phased re-entry into work over as long as three years.

“So if you had two periods of maternity leave, that could be up to six years in which your job is protected, which is good, but basically your career is on standby,” says Ongaro. “Many women simply miss the crucial years for getting to the top.” It doesn’t help that there is no national provision of out-of-school care facilities or extra-curricular activities – a major problem in a country where summer holidays last 13 weeks and many schools open for just four or five hours a day. As a result, figures from Italy’s institute of data analysis INPS show, 88% of all parental leave is taken by women.

However, Ongaro insists that gender inequality is a live issue in the corridors of power; in recent years, he says, attempts have been made to redress the balance. In 2007, a national directive for implementing Measures for Equality and Equal Opportunities between Men and Women was issued by the Department for Public Administration. The directive aimed to increase the presence of women in managerial positions; develop good practices for HR management in view of equal opportunities; and promote the awareness and application of tools for gender equal opportunities among HR managers in the public sector.

However, women in top positions remain stubbornly in the minority. “By and large, the right policies are there,” concludes Ongaro. “But those structural features of the service impede them; you need decades to produce outcomes.”

Italy’s policymakers have seen fit to bring in gender quotas elsewhere in the country’s economy, but no such measures exist yet in the public sector. In 2011, a quota system was imposed on the boards of directors and boards of statutory auditors of companies listed on the Italian Stock Exchange, beginning at 20% and raised to 33% by 2015. Fines for non-compliance can be up to a million euros.  This has undoubtedly had an impact: Italy is currently second among G20 nations for the proportion of women on boards, at 30.6%.

In 2013, the same quotas were applied to the boards of state-owned businesses. There are also quotas for local government where both sexes must be represented – though there are no sanctions for non-compliance. There are no mandatory gender quotas in the Italian Parliament, which comprises 31% women, but parties are encouraged to alternate men and women in electoral lists.

Until Italy reforms some of its long-established HR, recruitment and career development practices, however, it appears that the country’s civil service will only be able to make incremental process on gender equality within its leadership cadre.


Click here for the full results of Global Government Forum’s 2016-17 Women Leaders Index

Or click through to our case studies on Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Malta, Mexico, Turkey and the UK.

About Tania Mason

Journalist and an expert in organisational and management issues.

One Comment

  1. Martin from Canada says:

    I am shocked by this article. Forgive me if I’ve misinterpreted (my morning coffee has not taken effect) but ~ 3% of the senior civil servants in Italy and Europe are female? That’s astounding. The author’s point regarding maternity leave is important, however, I am skeptical given that (e.g.) Canada has a parental leave (either parent) of 12 months with longer unpaid or phased return and yet still females represent 46% of its senior civil servants. I expect the % of turn-over is higher though similar in Canada. The declining Italian (and European?) civil service #s may be more to blame – not enough comparable data to comment. So I would suggest that other factors are what is driving the very low % in Europe. Again, apologies if I’ve misunderstood.


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