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Open tribune

How much does the gender gap cost us?

30 April 2021

It has been more than a year since the Covid-19 virus started to spread.  Today, many voices are raising their concerns about the risk of a negative impact on gender equality. The pandemic represents a serious threat to the progress made thus far and a real danger that the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’s point 5, “achieving gender equality and self-determination for all women and girls”, will become an increasingly distant goal.

Unfortunately, it is not surprising that women continue to lag behind in the gender equality statistics.  They continue to suffer, especially in certain economic sectors, whether it be lower pay, less contractual protection, or barred access to top positions. Undoubtedly, however, the extent to which the weight of the pandemic and the economic recession has come to bear on the women –due to multiple factors- is striking. 

In Italy, in December 2020, data from the Institute of Statistics show 101,000 fewer people employed in absolute numbers than in November 2020: 99,000 of these are women.  Moreover, on an annual basis, in 2020 out of every four jobs lost, women had occupied three. First, these figures can be explained by the persistence of a generally fragile situation in the female labour market, for example part-time work, and other forms of poor contractual circumstances. To these can be added the fact that a high percentage of women are employed in economic sectors that are now at high risk of closure or of a sharp decline in activity, be it the retail and wholesale trade, accommodation and food services, the arts, or entertainment. However, there is another set of reasons that should not be underestimated. By tradition, or perhaps it would be better to say by vocation, women are more at risk in the care services sector.  In these difficult times they have found themselves facing a greater burden in terms of home commitments, particularly compared to the current needs of children struggling with studying at home via computer, and entire households smart working. This is borne out by a figure that is perhaps less conspicuous than the previous ones, but is nonetheless highly significant and worrying in the medium to long term. Apart from some exceptions, female scientists all over the world saw their scientific productivity rates fall significantly in 2020, in contrast to their male colleagues who actually saw them increase.

In Italy, paradoxically, such a bleak picture emerges precisely on the tenth anniversary of the Golfo-Mosca law (named after the two parliamentarians who proposed it). This law imposed female representation on the boards of public and listed companies, and has had the undisputed merit of beginning to undermine the consolidated practice conditioning the mechanisms of choice. This has been achieved by encouraging the presence of women in decision-making processes. However, despite the fact that the indirect effects of the above-mentioned law often include an increase in so-called role models, which are essential for overcoming deep-rooted stereotypes, we are still a long way from establishing a widespread way of thinking that is truly aware of women's wealth and talents. Only such a change of pace at a cultural level -commencing with the places of education-, can directing policies towards social welfare and economic recovery be decisive. More women in employment and in positions of leadership are not only a development and equality goal, but also of improving the quality of the internal dynamics of organisations. This improvement is measurable in terms of the decision-making processes that are less conflictual and more attentive to the many aspects that define their best potential.  In addition, economic growth too, since a woman’s human capital can be transformed into real economic value. All International institutions have measured substantial increases in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and traced it to the virtuous circle of development and economic growth triggered by gender equality.

Therefore, it is society as a whole that needs women who are integrated into the decision-making and organisational processes before they are appointed to formal roles, because women are the bearers and cultivators of a positive and hopeful outlook. The opportunity offered to us by this time of crisis should certainly encourage us to increase employment protection and introduce more effective tools to support women.  Moreover, to realise that until our political, university and ecclesial agendas fully value the female gender we will continue to lose out. Pope Francis says, “If we care about the future, if we desire a flourishing tomorrow, we need to give women their rightful place [because] women make the world beautiful and make contexts more inclusive”. It is necessary, therefore, to integrate the full potential of women, in order to hand on to the generations of tomorrow a society which is inhabited by the richness of the feminine and masculine so as to be truly on a human scale.

By Antonella Sciarrone Alibrandi
Professor of Economic Law at the Faculty of Banking, Finance and Insurance Sciences, Vice-Chancellor of the Catholic University, Consultant of the Pontifical Council for Culture, member of the Board of Directors of the Supervisory Authority and Financial Information of the Holy See and Vatican City State.