Italian media obsess about female ministers' appearance

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  • Wednesday, 26 Feb 2014

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (fourth from left) and Italian President Giorgio Napolitano posing with the female members of the new Italian cabinet (from left): Economic Development Minister Federica Guidi, Education and Research Minister Stefania Giannini, Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin, Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti, Foreign Affairs Minister Federica Mogherini, Regional Affairs Minister Maria Carmela Lanzetta, Public Administration Minister Marianna Madia, and Relations with Parliament Minister Maria Elena Boschi, after the swearing-in ceremony of the new government at Quirinale Palace in Rome on Feb 22. – EPA

Italian reaction to Matteo Renzi’s gender-balanced cabinet shows the fight for equality has a long way to go.

EVEN before they had set foot in their new offices, almost all the female contingent of Matteo Renzi’s new cabinet had, according to voices in the Italian media, blotted their copybooks.

Maria Carmela Lanzetta, minister for regional affairs, had worn “out of place” shoes. Federica Guidi had gone out in makeup that was more “Heidi in the summer” than minister for economic development. Marianna Madia and Stefania Giannini, in charge, respectively, of public administration and education, had both had the temerity to wear sheer tights – “a mistake”, according to one designer.

And what of Maria Elena Boschi, the 33-year-old minister for reform? Her electric blue suit at the swearing-in ceremony was too bright for some and too tight for others – “but she’s so beautiful”, declared the critic in La Repubblica, simultaneously strict and simpering, “that she’s instantly forgiven”.

When Renzi, the new centre-left prime minister whose government won its final seal of approval in the Italian parliament yesterday, unveiled his 16-strong cabinet last week, one of its most striking aspects was that, for the first time, it was to be split equally between women and men.

With responsibility for portfolios including foreign affairs and defence – the latter an Italian first in itself – many of the female ministers had been placed in heavyweight roles. “I would like it to be a beautiful thought for the many girls who think that politics is not a serious matter,” said Renzi. “That’s not how it is.”

In a country that has never had a female prime minister or head of state, and in which many women struggle to find jobs that will pay the bills let alone see them walk the corridors of power, the news was strikingly symbolic. It dramatically raised the bar for female representation.

The women’s rights organisation Se Non Ora Quando? (If not now, when?) described it as “a first step towards a better democracy”, noting that Italy’s culture – long male-dominated – was “slowly changing”.

But other responses – including a media predictably obsessed with women’s wardrobes – have illustrated quite how far it still has to go.

Fiorenza Sarzanini, a commentator at the daily newspaper Corriere Della Sera, remarked that, amid legitimate questions over Renzi’s significantly more youthful cabinet, it appeared that the eight women were bearing the brunt of suspicion that the 39-year-old’s new recruits would not be up to the task of rescuing Italy.

“Inevitably,” she said, their credentials had been scrutinised “in the not-very-veiled belief that they were chosen for reasons of image and to obtain a politically correct result.”

“It is not understandable why, a priori, the eventual failure should be due – as some analysts are already predicting – to the fact that the female ministers do not have (or are believed not to have?) the right capabilities,” she wrote. “Why is this criterion not also used to judge their male colleagues?”

Hostility has been flagrant in other quarters. Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing, xenophobic Northern League, told a television talkshow he had a “technical question” concerning Madia, who is heavily pregnant with her second child.

“I’m wondering when, given she’s about to give birth ... she’s going to work as a minister,” he said. He hoped the 33-year-old had not been chosen as a token gesture for a government of young people who “tweet and smile”, he added.

In the coming months Madia, an MP for Renzi’s Democratic party since 2008, should be a figure to be celebrated rather than bemoaned, said journalist Monica Guerzoni, even if she will enjoy logistical privileges unknown to the “vast majority” of new mothers in Italy.

“It is true that in Italy a woman who wants to reconcile motherhood and work, including in the very first months, all too often cannot do it,” she wrote on Corriere Della Sera’s women’s rights blog, 27esimaora. “Because nannies are expensive; because there aren’t enough nurseries; and because often procreation means discrimination at work.”

Childcare was one issue touched on by Renzi in a wide-ranging speech before the senate on Monday. It was unacceptable, he said, that in some parts of Italy the percentage of children going to nurseries was not even in double figures – a fact he said helped to explain the country’s dismal female employment rate.

From domestic abuse and cultural stereotyping to cowboy workplace practices such as blank resignation forms used to fire pregnant employees, the problems facing women in the eurozone’s third-largest economy are daunting. According to the national institute of statistics, an average woman’s earnings potential is half that of her male counterpart.

Equality, therefore, may have been achieved in the cabinet but it is still a long way off in the rest of the country. – Guardian News & Media

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