The Missing Piece in Italian Politics: Women

“It’s still rare to find women who have authoritative roles in the media and political system. On the contrary, things have gone backwards.”

A model displays a creation by Italian designer Susanna Liso in Rome, Italy, on January 28, 2007 (Dario Pignatelli / Reuters)

ROME—For the past few weeks I’ve been in Italy, covering the elections last Sunday which produced the biggest political change here in decades. It was my first reporting trip back here in a while. I lived in Rome for many years but moved away in 2013. Maybe I’ve changed since then, maybe it’s the #MeToo moment, but coming back to Italy this time, what struck me most wasn’t the political chaos, the populism, the dysfunction, or even the beauty, since a person can get used to all that. It was the fact that there were barely any women playing leading roles in the election coverage.

As the returns came in, the main talk shows had all-male panels of experts. Some of the reporters in the field were women, and some of the interviewers, too. But men dominated the debate. As far as I could tell, the only strong, independent woman featured on Italian television as a protagonist, not an interviewer, during the most intense days of election coverage was hiking a mountain, alone—in an ad for muesli. Is it really possible that the only taking heads these channels could find were men, mostly over the age of 50?

Is it really possible that in a country of 60 million people, there were barely any women weighing in on the results on the front pages of the country’s most prominent newspapers, and barely any woman there with regular political columns? There are some exceptions. Milena Gabanelli, an investigative journalist, sometimes writes for Corriere della Sera and Nadia Urbinati for La Repubblica. There are also some important women on television hosting interview or current affairs programs: Lucia Annunziata, Bianca Berlinguer, Lilli Gruber. But they are exceptions.

I recently interviewed Sofia Ventura, a professor of political science at the University of Bologna, about Silvio Berlusconi, and whether the image of women had improved in Italy since he had left power, after shaping a culture of trashy television. “The image of women hasn’t really improved in Italy. It’s still rare to find women who have authoritative roles in the media and political system. On the contrary, things have gone backwards,” she told me. “The evening talk shows are frightening,” she continued. “When they discuss politics and call on an authoritative voice, women are never called on.”

Issues affecting women barely resonated in this campaign, even though women are half of the electorate, as Gaia Pianigiani recently wrote in the Times. Italy has one of the lowest female employment rates in Europe, second only to Greece. It also has one of the lowest birth rates. Only 54 percent of women return to work after having a child. Childcare in Italy is mostly grandparents.

Two women led parties running in this election: Emma Bonino, a former European commissioner whose More Europe party failed to get enough seats to enter Parliament—although she will be a senator through other means—and Giorgia Meloni, whose far-right Brothers of Italy party, did get enough. Among the women mentioned most in the election campaign were Laura Boldrini, the speaker of the Lower House and the subject of vitriol from the right-wing League, which blames the government for allowing hundreds of thousands of migrants to arrive in Italy since 2014, and who was running with a splinter left-wing group. There was also Elsa Fornero, who was Labor Minister from 2011 to 2013 in the technocratic government of Mario Monti, which raised Italy’s retirement age in order to keep the country’s finances under control. That move was so unpopular that Silvio Berlusconi, the right-wing League, and the Five-Star Movement all campaigned to change much-maligned “Fornero law” and lower the retirement age again.

The #MeToo movement barely caught on in Italy, except coverage of developments in the States. Women were afraid to come forward in Italy for fear of being humiliated, excoriated, or sued for defamation. In the States, the #MeToo movement took off “because there was already a culture that allowed these people to be heard with respect,” the novelist and screenwriter Francesca Marciano told me. “Here, we’re so far behind that we still need to build that.”

She and several dozen women in the Italian film industry published an open letter calling for more gender parity in Italian film and television. They plan to raise the issue with the president of Italy, when he greets all the nominees of the Donatello Awards, Italy’s answer to the Oscars, at the presidential palace. I wish them well. I hope the president will listen. I also find it telling that in Italy, there’s still a kind of expectation that change has to come from above, not below. (Maybe that’s also why the net-roots populist Five-Star Movement, which placed first in elections, is so perplexing to the establishment here.)

In the United States, companies have been making an effort for decades to help promote women. In Italy, there’s barely an understanding that it would be good for business—let alone good for the country and the economy—if more women were able to advance in their careers.

A few years back, when I was the Rome bureau chief of The New York Times, sometimes when I showed up to interviews I could tell the interviewee was taken aback, as if there must have been some mistake, and I was the assistant to the actual correspondent. I was often asked—and this tells you a lot about Italy—if my parents were also correspondents for the Times, as if the job were a hereditary title. I was seen as a rare animal, a product of meritocracy in a country that saw too little of it. It may not be easy for anyone to get a foothold in Italy these days, but it’s doubly hard for young people and women. The brain drain is dramatic.

“This is a male-dominated country, a country of corporations who defend themselves,” Ventura told me. “Women arrived more recently, for sociological reasons, and like young people, they’re blocked by old men who dominate the positions of power.” I thought of her remarks when I was watching the all-male panels of experts on television during the elections. I don’t know which possibility is worse—that the people on screen don’t accurately reflect the country, or that they do.

This Italian election didn’t hinge on a debate about women; it hinged on a debate about immigration. The right-wing League party won 17 percent of the vote, on a campaign of fears of out-of-control immigration, and is now the senior partner in a right-wing bloc that has more than a third of the electorate. The lack of women on television was bad enough, but I wonder how the election would have been different, how immigration would be perceived differently, if Italy had a single person of color on prime-time television.

In every country where populists have won, including the United States, it’s been followed by soul-searching about the role of the press in a democracy. Maybe it’s time for Italy to have the same debate.