Gender gap in Italy: equality is still a mirage

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Andrea Gangemi
Portolano Cavallo, Rome

Tabita Costantino
Portolano Cavallo, Milan


Council of Europe: Italy does not respect gender equality at work

The European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR) warned Italy and 14 other European countries about non-compliance with the right to equal pay, as well as with the right to equal working opportunities for men and women.

According to the ECSR, these problems are not related to the enactment of specific laws, since all European countries have laws mandating gender equality and equal treatment in the workplace. Indeed, in order to change the current situation, those laws would need to be combined with policies and measures for the concrete implementation of equality between women and men across various business scenarios.

With regard to Italy, the ECSR focused its attention on the lack of appropriate measures to promote the woman's right to equal opportunities in the labour market and the absence of measures to balance personal and professional life (eg, insufficient financial support for services such as childcare).

Gender gap in Italy: current status

In 2019, the National Institute of Statistics ('ISTAT') suggested that women in Italy experience difficulty entering the labour market and often face more tenuous working conditions and a marked gender pay gap in the private sector.

Indeed, while in the public sector the gender pay gap is very low, in the private sector it is higher: 20.7 per cent (based on 2017 figures). In terms of incomes, in 2017 the average annual income for women was 25 per cent lower than for men (€15.373 compared to €20.453).

At the same time, women are still under-represented in public sector top-management positions, where they fill only 16.8 per cent of positions at decision-making bodies (eg, the Constitutional Court, embassies etc), while in the private sector the presence of women on boards of directors is growing and has reached about 36.4 per cent of the total (this is just above the minimum threshold of one third required under Italian law for listed companies, a threshold that was raised to 40 per cent by the most recent Budget Law).

How to prove gender discrimination in court

Discrimination issues are increasingly being addressed by Italian courts.

A recent decision issued by the Italian Supreme Court (No 11530 of 15 June 2020) draws attention to the rules governing the burden of proof in gender discrimination cases.

The case involved a woman who sued her former employer. After an apprenticeship period she had not been hired as a permanent employee, unlike her male colleagues and other female colleagues who were not mothers.

However, according to the Court, during the four-month period taken as a reference period, the company hired both female and male apprentices and the employee did not prove that the alleged discrimination was linked to her status as a mother. In other words, the fact that all the apprentices hired permanently during that period were not mothers does not in and of itself indicate discrimination.

Pursuant to Italian law, it is the defendant (in this case, the company) that must prove no discrimination occurred, but only if and when the claimant (in this case, the employee) is able to prove that the allegations (even those based on statistical figures) are based on precise and comparable elements.

Indeed, although an employee who claims to have suffered gender discrimination at the workplace may be able to provide simplified and superficial evidence (ie, by means of a statistical index), the mere existence of such statistics does not automatically reverse the burden of proof onto the employer.

Gender equality during the Covid-19 emergency: does working from home increase the pay gap between women and men?

We might wonder what the impact of Covid-19 has been on the gender inequalities, or if there has been any impact at all.

The Covid-19 outbreak had disruptive effects on the labour market but, at the same time, it allowed certain categories of employee to work from home.

The opportunity to work from home is one of the measures generally provided to facilitate work-life balance, thus allowing women, who have greater responsibility for childcare, to combine work and family responsibilities. During the Covid-19 era, work-from-home policies were widely implemented to safeguard employees.

Such measures are effective in providing gender equality only if family responsibilities are shared equally between men and women. Otherwise, the effect is to widen the existing gender disparities further.

Emergency measures introduced recently by the Italian government seem to aim for shared responsibility between parents. In fact, to meet families' needs during this time, when schools were not open, the government introduced special parental leave to care for children or, alternatively, a bonus to be spent on summer recreation centres or babysitting services.


The road to full gender equality is still a long one, but the recent measures introduced by the Italian government during Covid-19 suggest that we are on the right path.

Finally, as the ECSR also points out, laws only set down the principles to be followed. The key role in making any measures effective is played by employers, who do this by adopting company policies to establish clear and transparent remuneration criteria, as well as to guarantee equal opportunities to male and female employees alike, thus tackling the gender gap.

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