The Glass Ceiling in the Italian Economy


by Simona Cuomo, Expert Fellow, Department of Management, UniversitÓ Bocconi
Translated by Alex Foti

The feminization of the labor market is one of the deepest social transformations having emerged from the second half of the Twentieth century. Women's labor has only fairly recently become a source of social identity and individual self-fulfillment. This radical evolution in the meaning and motivation of work for women has not been matched by a corresponding progress in the positions and roles held by women in the economy, especially in Italy.

When it comes to their careers, women are still horizontally and vertically segregated. The former expression designates the lingering tendency to separate professions, industries, and functions on the basis of gender, so that certain jobs are considered to be male and others female, while the latter expression denotes the so-called glass ceiling that prevents women from reaching the top echelons of the corporate hierarchy.

A research study looking at at Italian privately-owned companies highlights a very unfavorable situation for Italian women. According to the last World Economic Forum rankings, Italy's gender gap is so bad that the country was ranked 67th among the 130 countries of the world considered (and 85th for the economic opportunities offered to women).

Looking at listed companies, Consob, the Italian stock exchange authority, reports that in 63.1% of company boards not even one woman is present. Of the remaining percentage, in 28.6% of boards include only one woman, in 7.9% of cases two women, and in 0.4% four. Overall, only 5% of corporate administrators in Italy are women. And more often than not, women are board members because they belong to the family owning the company, otherwise statistics on gender discrimination in company boards would be even direr.

The overall picture is confirmed by looking at data for manufacturing and service employment. In manufacturing, 16.5% of employees are women, but only 6.9% are part of top management, while in services women constitute 45.9% of total employment, but the glass ceiling is still there blocking their ascent: only 9.2% of women make it to the top.

The exclusion of women from decision-making positions is linked to discrimination mechanisms built into organizations, since the rules have been written by a predominantly male managerial class. One of the biggest obstacles to career advancement is the current culture of work and worktime, which calls for 12-hour workdays and total commitment to the needs of the company. Under such a system, combining the double role of professional woman and family mother is virtually impossible.

Also, acquiring power means adopting tougher, more aggressive modes of behavior, which many women are reluctant to do. Today, the compromises and sacrifices that an Italian woman must accept to be able to climb the corporate ladder are simply too onerous. The road that must be taken is one that leads to a different organizational culture whose priorities are not to homogenize and model everybody to a given template, but which includes and valorizes each person, woman or man, according to her or his individual differences.

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