Italy trails behind in gender equality at work. The female employment rate is only 46%, next before last in Europe: only Malta does worse. Thus the objective, set in Lisbon, of a 60% employment rate by 2010 remains distant. Furthermore, the 75% objective for men's and women's employment rates by 2020 seems a mirage.
But Italy is mixed and cross-regional gaps are large: while the North has a female employment rate of 56%, which is not too far away from the Lisbon targets, the South stays at a paltry 31%. However North-South differences are not as large when it comes to male employment rates. The same can be said for education rates. In South as in the North, women with a college degree have outnumbered men and the percentage of people having a university degree are similar in the two areas of the country. So it would seem that in the South there are factors holding women back and leading to low female employment and lack of valorization of their talent and educational capital. What are these factors?
In my research studies with Alessandra Casarico, collected in the book Donne in attesa: l’Italia delle disparità di genere [Women in Waiting: Italy and Gender Disparity], published by Egea this year, in addition to features of the labor market and the role of institutions, we investigate the family factor: in Italy the division of labor within the couple is very unbalanced, with women devoting a lot more time to domestic labor and family care, while men are engaged in the labor market. This pronounced sexual division of labor depends on cultural values and social norms which tend to reproduce it and are daily reaffirmed in the attitudes of individuals and firms.
We thus asked ourselves if the heterogeneity of gender employment differentials could be explained, in part at least, by cultural factors. It's what we have done in a research study that draws data from the Italian provinces (Campa, Casarico, Profeta, Gender Culture and Gender Gap in Employment, CESifo Economic studies, forthcoming). In the study we tried to measure gender culture by using two complementary indicators. The first attempts to capture individual preferences and is based on the answers given to questions of the World Values Survey: To be a homemaker is as satisfying as to be in employment? Does a preschooler suffer when the mother works? When work is scarce, should men be given priority over women? Higher percentages of affirmative responses indicate a more women-adverse culture. To get an idea, 81% of Italians answered yes to the first question against a European average of 50%, with much higher percentages in the South with respect to the North. The second measure was based on the planned hirings and gender preferences in a sample of firms taken form each province, as polled by Excelsior for Unioncamere. According to the data, 41.4% of Italian firms state they'd rather hire men, only 17.4% prefer women, and the rest is indifferent. Again, the percentage of gender-neutral firms is much lower in the South than in the North of Italy.
Our econometric analysis shows that, after controlling for a series of relevant factors (labor market characteristics, availability of part-time jobs, socio-demographic characteristics, institutional context), in the provinces where cultural indicators show openness to working women, gender employment differentials are lower. This is true when we consider both our indicators for culture, showing that the result is rather robust. The South is saddled with a culture which is more adverse to women in employment: people would rather maintain the division of labor within the couple, and firms are less ready to hire women. There's still a long way to go for women to prove their worth at work.