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Cross‐generation roundtable – Beyond equal opportunity: women in business and in the public sector

    • Rome
    • 17 September 2014

          This second edition of the Cross-generational Roundtable, aimed at bringing together associates of Aspen Institute Italia spanning several generations to discuss various topics of shared interest, focused on gender equality of opportunity. In particular, the participants examined analyses and proposals to improve women’s access in Italy to managerial and leadership positions in companies and public administrations. A comparison with the state of play internationally highlighted that Italy lags behind in ensuring both the quantity and quality of female representation at these professional levels. It was felt that in addressing this issue, a balance needs to be struck between achieving more equal gender quotas and ensuring individual merit. The overriding problem, however, was seen as the failure to recognize the merits of women, as also evidenced by the mismatch between the higher numbers of Italian female high-school and university graduates and the career success of women, a cultural challenge for Italy that has been years in the making. Those in attendance suggested that proper recognition of merit across the board would also ensure greater participation and deployment of women in the workforce. It was stressed, however, that much more needs to be done to assess merit and evaluate the results obtained from the adoption of meritocratic strategies. Since Italy lacks such metrics, lessons need to be learned from firms that are at the forefront of equal opportunity practice (which should publicize their methods and successes), as well as from other countries. Best practices – it was argued – should be shared and replicated, including via the internet and social networks, drawing on digital resources as an opportunity for social innovation.

          It was noted that three years on from the passing of the Golfo-Mosca Law (on gender parity in the corporate governance bodies of listed companies and State-controlled enterprises), the proportion of women sitting on the boards of listed companies has gone up from 6% to 26% (compared with the 20% envisaged by the Law). The participants pointed to the need to consider – during the intended ten-year life of this Law, which was introduced to bring about a cultural and meritocratic reformation – whether its principles could also be applied in other spheres, in particular public authorities and the public sector in general.

          Even so, it was felt that equal opportunities – and the associated obligations and target quotas – will not be enough without measures to eliminate the factors creating the “glass ceiling” which makes top positions in particular inaccessible. Gender balance in the workplace was seen as entailing life balance: the real possibility of reconciling work and family or personal commitments. Much emphasis was placed on the need for fresh ideas for new generations, such as moving beyond the gendered division of family roles towards a cooperative approach. There was a perceived need for Italy to reflect on how it measures up against other countries (for instance, only 7% of Italian fathers avail themselves of their parental leave entitlements, compared with 69% of their Swedish counterparts, the record holders for Europe). It was also deemed necessary for innovative mechanisms to be explored with respect to maternity leave, childcare and care for the elderly, so as to reduce the burden traditionally shouldered by women alone. Such options could – it was suggested – include the introduction of work “holiday banks”, enabling leave accrued in one job by workers on fixed-term contracts to follow them into their next job.

          In concluding their discussions, the participants stressed that any element of diversity in an ever-increasingly complex world would serve as a resource in the pursuit of solutions, and that gender equality of opportunity does not generally imply lowering the bar, but rather tapping into the diversity of women.