‘Mancession’ Pushes Italian Women Back Into Workforce

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from The Wall Street Journal,

Fabrizia Mancini, a mother of three, had to double her hours at work after her husband's struggling employer stopped paying him in June.

Like many Italian women, Anna Durante gave up full-time work outside the home after her first daughter was born more than a decade ago, leaving the role of family breadwinner to her husband.

But when he lost his job in a barber shop two years ago, Ms. Durante, then with two daughters, dusted off her diploma in elderly care and started looking for permanent work again.

The 30-year-old was finally hired last year by a cooperative providing aid for disabled people in Casoria, near Naples, while her husband remains unemployed.

“For my daughters I am both mom and dad. I do it all,” she says.

The harsh recession that followed the 2007-08 global financial crisis swept away many of the blue-collar jobs traditionally filled by men in Italy, the U.S. and other countries as well—a development that became known as “mancession.”

But the trend is having a surprising side effect in Italy: Not only were women more likely to keep their jobs, but tens of thousands more are heading back into the workplace. That could give Italy, which has one of the lowest rates of female employment in the West, an economic boost in the long run.

“At the beginning our world went upside down,” says Isabella Esposito, a 35-year-old mother of two from Naples. After her husband lost his job as a security guard, she went back to work as a beautician. “At that point, I had no other option left.”

Only about half of Italian women are in the workforce, compared with an European Union average of 62%, according to Eurostat. In Sweden the rate is 76.8% and in Germany, 71.5%.

Traditional attitudes help explain the difference. In Italy, the dominant cultural model—particularly in the south—still depicts women as stay-at-home wives and mothers more than breadwinners.

Widespread discrimination in the workplace, contributing to a dearth of women in positions of corporate or political power, has also been a powerful deterrent. For instance, nearly 9% of Italian working mothers say they have been fired from a job because of a pregnancy.

At one time, employers often forced a new female hire to pre-sign a resignation letter that would be put into effect if she got pregnant. The practice was outlawed in 2012.

Italian women also get less support in juggling work and home. They do 3.7 hours more household work a day than men, compared with an average of 2.3 hours among the 34 developed countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. About 24% of children under the age of three attend day care in Italy, compared with 33% in OECD countries.

Now, Italy’s protracted economic downturn is starting to push women into the workplace, even as traditionally male-dominated jobs disappear.

The rise in employment is concentrated in areas such as the civil service, health care and family services—sectors that have proved more recession-resistant—as well as in low-skill areas, such as cleaning services.

Moreover, with Italy raising progressively the retirement age for women from 62 in 2012 to 66 in 2018, the number of over-50 workers is also increasing.

About one-third of Italian working women are part-time—traditionally viewed as a way to juggle work and family—compared with an OECD average of 24%.

The upper echelons of corporate Italy are also cracking open the door. In 2011 the share of women on boards of listed companies stood at around 6%, less than half the EU average of 14%.

Last year, the government introduced a quota requiring that one third of boards of listed companies and state-owned companies be made up of women by 2015, that has already pushed the number up to 17%.

Economists agree that getting more women into the labor market would help counterbalance the effects of a shrinking working-age population, thus reducing the strain on public welfare and raising competitiveness.

The OECD calculates that if female participation rates in Italy converged to those of men by 2030, the Italian labor force would increase by 7% and per capita gross domestic product would grow by one percentage point a year for the next 20 years.

But obstacles remain. For instance, with youth unemployment at around 40%, younger women report having an even harder time entering the workforce than men.

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