Naked ambition, the FT, and Italian women

Readers of my other blog know that I often comment – mostly with dismay – on the status of women in Italian society. Today, the FT Weekend article by Adrian Michaels gives me a chance to rant here too.

In a nutshell, Michaels argues that the female image portrayed by media and advertising in Italy feeds on, and in turn reinforces, the low status of women in Italian business, politics, and in the professions. And I think he’s right: there are few role models for young girls beyond the veline (skimpily dressed TV dancers, for readers who aren’t familiar with the term), and hardly any visible women CEOs or entrepreneurs beyond those who have inherited their roles because they are the founder’s daughter, sister or widow. Outside these pockets of privilege, there are enormous constraints on the time a woman can devote to pursuing professional achievement if she’s trying to keep a family going (from schools that close in the afternoon to primitive retail and banking hours, as the author himself discovers when trying to buy milk on a Sunday). According to economists Tito Boeri and Daniela del Boca, only 25% of the hours worked by Italian women are paid work; the rest is unpaid, work hours spent outside the labor market, taking care of others for free (including, increasingly, older family members). Among women who work outside the home, only 30% return to work after having a child; for the careers of the others, maternity means game over.

I think we need a rather radical agenda to get out of this vicious circle. First, we need to be more selfish.

Let the house get a bit dirtier. Some scum in the shower never killed anybody. Cleanliness is overrated.

Go to supermarkets that sell ready meals. Yes, they’re pricey, but not as much as our time is worth. Better yet, order online or by phone. Arrange delivery when convenient. Bank online. It is retailers who ought to adapt to our needs, not we to theirs.

Let the baby wallow in a dirty diaper until Dad changes it. Let older children wash themselves, or go to bed dirty. Some exposure to germs is good as it increases resistance to diseases.

Let your husband pay for a nurse for your mother-in-law. If he does not have enough money, tell him to get a second job, or to act as a nurse himself. This may take until Grandma gets a couple of bedsores. Bedsores are a necessary evil in the education of men.

Get extremely organized (you might pick a few ideas from The 4-Hour Workweek). Then, use the time you rediscovered to play the power game. Be bold. Call a meeting with your boss at 8pm to show him your ideas for reorganizing his department, and engage him in a long discussion, so that he misses the first half of that Champions League match. Go out to breakfast with a head hunter. Network with other women. Write about your agenda for change, and become a columnist for your local paper. Bootstrap your reputation. Stand for election to your town council, or some other body where you will have the power to change things.

The point is: no one will hand power over to women. Not if we accept the state of things as they are, or if we merely entertain interesting proposals about quotas in company boards and so on. We have to want it, and we have to build our resumes for it.

Are you ready?

16 thoughts on “Naked ambition, the FT, and Italian women

  1. Pingback: Fabio Turel

  2. Great post. Actual change starts with small, substantial things. And as a husband and father, I agree: an equitable balance in family life has a good effect on your children too – girls will learn to require respect, boys will learn to be respectful. I’ve always seen my father helping at home with the chores, so the same came natural to me.

  3. Dear Paola,

    I’ve read with interest your comments to the FT article. I agree on the need to get out of the vicious circle. I appreciate your effort to give implementable suggestions (shall we call them “quick wins”?).

    I am not sure that all Italian woman would want to do the change you are suggesting, due to traditional/cultural mindsets.

    Italian woman often lack positive aggressiveness, they even sometimes see it as negative.

    The lack of aggressiveness is cultural:
    many young girls are taught that the key feminine trait are “respect and compassion” and that these is what society would look for in them.

    The lack of aggressiveness shows not only at home, but also in the job market even befor the family thing, I don’t have statistics, but I sense a preference for job with limited internal competition (and limited career opportunities) and certain hours, rather than the more demanding ones with few winners.
    Weak professional positions don’t allow them to: play the externalization game (which is right, as man moved out of the stone age he specialized) or do the head-hunter thing.

    You mention the “enormous constraints on the time a woman can devote to pursuing professional achievement if she’s trying to keep a family going” and you are right. But what have most woman done before they have the family going? Till they don’t have this time constraint and their life is entirely up to them?
    You mention that “Among women who work outside the home, only 30% return to work after having a child; for the careers of the others, maternity means game over.” And you are right. But for how many of the 70% did the career game ever started? Did they push their effort in the work place to the limit? Did they took needed risks? Did they suffered from the loss of the career opportunity? Or they planned to end-up that way (at home) one or two decades earlier and so they underinvested in their professional life?

    If this is the start your suggestions, good suggestions, for many comes unfortunately too late:
    -many woman don’t want a change, they have grown up with certain beliefs and are not willing to change them
    -if the “family contract” is: respect and compassion vs. keep, it would be very difficult to make the changes be accepted by the partner, and rightly so…
    -the job market is unforgiving: it is very hard to change or makeup at 40 for what you haven’t done or have done wrong at 30. Even worst, the same is starting to be true for 30 vs 20.

    What else can be done? I can only see a few things which unfortunately would take long time… up to a generation:
    1) find female role models to indicate to young girls, models with the right level of aggressiveness and willingness to fight for their place in the world (not just “veline” or mothers)
    2) man need to change their approach
    3) woman need to do more of what is in their control

    2) Man need to change their approach to woman both as colleagues and as partners.
    As colleagues:
    -man need to invest more on woman in the workplace
    -man are starting now, sometimes, to treat woman equally. This is better than negative discrimination, but treating woman as man a lot of the woman potential to do certain things better gets lost… (I can elaborate on this another time)

    As partners:
    -man need to get out of the stone-age concept of woman bringing to the family respect and compassion, children and chores and starting to look them as real partners.
    A partner with who to execute a partially shared life plan, someone who would be not respectful and not compassionate when needed for the greater good of the family, someone equal in right and in responsibility, someone who has her own freedom and independence in her life, within the family boarders… and let the cleaner do the cleaning, the cook do the cooking, the baby sitter the baby sitting as you suggest.

    3) Finally woman has to do more of what is in their control, till they have full control on their life. As if their life was to depend on it.

    Hope all of this would happen and thank you for bringing up the topic.


    P.S.: Fabio, I agree, role models at home are key, but they still take one generation…

  4. hi…i’m a italian girl…
    i have read this in a itlaian journal too…
    in italy this news has been scandalous..i was agree becaus it is true that woman in italy is represented nude in all programs (sport, politics, talk shows, quiz shows and variety…) if you go on there are more videos of nude girls….
    even if we are in a state where the Church with the Vatican govern (sorry i have a terrible english i hope that u unerstand me) the nude is often demanded….we are ever been in a italian airport?….italian Tg has see this news as a scandalous because after a report, there is one of a nude velina with breast and ass. I dont scandalize but i scandalize when this news with the naked girl appears after a news that spoke of a normal joung girl that have a rape of a man. That is frequent happens in Italy…i find this is a big mistake as the mass media see the itlaian woman…because the firs news (with the rape at a joung girl) last 3 minuts the other with velina last 15 minutes…..
    which information can give this news ?
    they don’t ask that this news after a serious one can denigrate a woman and not only that have a rape….
    Know you how much is punished a sexual crime in Italy?
    A criminal it goes in prison and it remains 2 days….many of they never go there and the Criminal code previews that they are from two to 5 years for this crime. until 1981 we had the crime to avenge the honor like in India and until 1996 the rape was a crime against the moral..
    the culture is hard to die….
    In italy be a woman in Italy to be a woman it means don’t find a job because ours laws have not been adapted to a society that it changes…
    My mother is an hose wife…i dont knows what do the english women that my mother has left the job because i was born and she has left the job….it is a choise that many women in italy take….
    in politics there are a little women 9% and if there are little women they make little laws for women….In politics men don’ t want that there are many women in politics..because they think that we are not good, that we are stupid…in politics they have made the “quote rosa”…they have seen to us as a Panda…inserting the women not for their merit but because they are women….as handicapped persons….in fact in politics there are many women whom they do not know TO WORK and many of they because they are beautiful girls…
    Itlaians girls study a lot, more of the men..but man do more career…
    Girls and Women who ask job they receive sexual demands for who offers job to it

  5. continue…

    and if they are in pregnancy they come fired or forced to do it….and if a woman have a career people think that she have sex with who has given job to them or because she has a beautiful body…
    I think that women must fight for their emancipation…

  6. Excellent article on your blog !!
    I am a German-American woman who lives here in Italy, currently doing my Ph.D and it is amazing how many Italian women are shocked to know and see what I am doing with my life. I am married but have been quite insistent in my life to pursue my dreams. I always have, married or not pursied my ambitions. I encourage other women to do so. But I find that most Italian women just do not want to be ambitious and see it as a negative trait. Italian women never are supportive of what I do. And the ones who do support my work/profession are surprisingly Italian men–albeit not the majority. Sadly most Italian men want their women submissive and constrained to the domestic sphere. My attitude is that most Italian women deserve to be where they are just because they lack a will to change–and they actually enjoy perpetuating this domestic-housebound-feminine image to their own daughters. Of course they resent those women who actually go outside the domestic sphere and are successful. If they want to live like that then let them, but they should not condemn those women who want something different for themselves. Women have the freedom to do so. I strongly encourage all those women who want to have a career to go for it and never for one minute think that being ambitious is a negative trait. Having ambition is healthy! It makes one strong and self-reliant. Those are traits my parents wanted to instill in me. My parents encouraged me to be ambitious already from an early age and that is the reason I am independent and successful today. As long as a culture encourages weak, nonassertive, house-bound, feminine submissive images of women, then women will reproduce this image not only among themselves and in their community but it will also provide the men in society more strength to reinforce this image. Sad, but true. I strongly recommend that Italian women read the book:
    The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan !!! Maybe some of them will see themselves in the mirror.

  7. I applaud this! I am a black American women living and teaching English in Italy. I can’t begin to tell you about my disgust of treatment in this country. So much, I have started to write a book about my experiences. I’m educated and proud of my heritage but I have never experience such racism and sexism in my life! They only see women as objects and the women parade themselves in this way to get attention. I have always had a successful career working in PR in the US and now teaching for only Business English to affluent men and women. But if I told you of the proposals I have received from both men and women…Women mostly at the requests of their husbands. You would scream..They see my skin as an invitation for SEX since 80% of the velina advertisements are of brown skinned women. SO not only do women need to stand up and fight for their rights they need to stop the cycle of ignorance by teaching equality of sex and race. I agree with many of the other bloggers…women need to change how they behave and raise better men y giving them the same treatment as their daughters and making them enabled responsible human beings not over over sexed insecure little mammma boys!

  8. I am the founder and CEO of a US-based technology start-up and mother of 3 children. When I graduated college 20 years ago, I confidently felt that the glass ceiling would be shattered in my generation.

    Today, I am far less optimistic…and it started with childrearing. It isn’t about domestic parity with one’s partner as much as it is about information flow for children’s needs and how that information network reinforce traditional roles.

    A successful professional builds a network of successful professional contacts — critical to maneuvering any professsional organization.

    Well. There is a similar structure within every school or child-oriented organization. Unfortunately, this network is not gender neutral. It is almost 99.999999% female. The husband can wander the hallways of school for hours, weeks and years and he will never receive key information. Mothers talk to other mothers ONLY.

    And this information is what enables optimization for a child. Which teacher is good? Which should be avoided? How and when does one need to apply for this and that opportunity for their child. How to set up playdates so your child can have friends…. the list is very long and if a mother does not participate, the information is never tapped. As with all networks, it works better for some than others. Typically, it does not work particularly well for professional women (purely a function of time).

    Can a father try to maneuver this child-optimization information network? No.

    So, what happens?

    The professional mother recognizes the network and jumps in. As with everything, there is an opportunity cost. One does not have time for everything (esp. while raising children and working a demanding job!)

    Since most parents would not put idealogy ahead of their’s child’s welfare (and there simply is not enough time to do buck the system) the cycle perpetuates: the father fills the traditional roles and the mother falls back on traditional roles, regardless of interest/ability.

    ….and the world of stereotypes about womenliness is further perpetuated.

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  10. Pingback: Four recipes to save Italy: “Meritocrazia” by Roger Abravanel « Live from Planet Paola

  11. Just a suggestion from one professional woman to another: If you want to be taken seriously in the workplace – and you want to advocate for societal change of the treatment of women – don’t post a (nearly) nude photo of yourself on your blog that is linked to your work info. It’s reinforcing the image of woman as sex object.

  12. i was very disappointed not to see any pictures of women naked dressed as pandas, pleased could you not false advertise so i don’t waste your time and you waste mine.
    laura, picture enclosed. x

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