Pandemic sets back Italian women's long fight for jobs

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Tour guide Laura Taddeo poses for a portrait in front of the Vatican, Thursday, March 4, 2021. One of hundreds of thousands of women in Italy who lost jobs in the pandemic, Taddeo has a masters degree in tourism, speaks fluent English and Spanish and some Arabic, too. Her contract as a tour operator with a high-end Italian hotel company expired in May 2020, just as COVID-19 travel restrictions were crippling tourism, and it wasnt renewed. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

ROME – One of hundreds of thousands of women in Italy who lost jobs in the pandemic, Laura Taddeo has a masters degree in tourism, speaks fluent English and Spanish and some Arabic, too.

Her contract as a tour operator with a high-end Italian hotel company expired in May, just as COVID-19 travel restrictions were crippling tourism, and it wasn’t renewed. But whenever tourism does rebound, Taddeo, who cuts a confident figure, will brace for the job interview questions.

“It’s not, ‘What have you studied? What languages do you speak?’ but ‘Do you have a family? Do you intend to have children?”’ Taddeo, who is 33, said every man who has interviewed her asked her that right off the bat.

Worldwide, working women have paid a painfully high price during the pandemic as many quit jobs to care for children when schools closed or saw employment evaporate in hard-hit retail and hospitality businesses. But Italian women went into the COVID-19 crisis already struggling for decades to expand their presence in the workforce.

Among the 27 European Union nations, Italy ranks next to last, just above Greece, in terms of women's participation in the workforce. About 54% of women in Italy had jobs in 2019, before the pandemic hit, compared with 73% for men and an EU average for women of around 67%. The rate dropped to about 49% for women and 67% for men in Italy by the end of last year, reflecting the pandemic's blow to the economy.

Deeply rooted Italian societal attitudes that hold a woman’s main vocation is in the home help to explain the lag.

"It's not so much that women shouldn't work, but they shouldn't neglect the household. That's the responsibility of women,'' said sociologist Chiara Saraceno of the widespread attitudes. Affordable day-care is chronically scarce, both public and private.

Of 456,000 jobs lost in 2020 in Italy, where the pandemic first erupted in the West, 249,000 were held by women, many of whom had been working as waitresses, store clerks, nannies and caretakers for the elderly. According to the national statistics bureau, ISTAT, between November and December, when Italy was grappling with a devastating resurgence of infections, a staggering 99,000 of the 101,000 jobs that disappeared were women’s, mostly among the self-employed.